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512 First Nation member Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations elected Shawn Atleo to the head of the Canada-wide, federally funded aboriginal advocacy body. He won in the third ballot with 67 percent of the vote. Atleo comes across as a mild-mannered, Clark Kent type: perhaps more self-confident, but about as disinterested in uncomfortable social situations as the Smallville fellow. Judging by the candidates who the Chiefs did not vote for, however, there may not be much anticipation of a Superman costume under the rich coastal regalia.
The Chiefs did not elect Pam Palmater, who came second and lost by 200 votes. In the run-up to the AFN Annual General Assembly in Toronto, Dr. Palmater told Wab Kinew about Atleo's past three years' leadership: “Clearly, the crown-First Nations gathering was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Their joint action plan is about individuals, integration and maximizing benefits for Canadians. As opposed to First Nations sovereignty, jurisdiction, treaty rights, recognition of land and culture – oh, and preservation of the Indian Act and more legislation to come – what kind of a joint action plan is that? Where was the: 'here’s what we’re going to do about the housing crisis,' and 'here’s what we’re going to do about the people who have no water or sanitation.' There was none of that.”
Bill Erasmus, the Dene National Chief and the North West Territories Regional AFN Chief, was voted off the ballot just before Palmater. Unlike Atleo, his approach to the campaign was based on specifics such as the new and improved Indian Act, yet a work in progress between AFN and the feds. “This legislation they’re playing with right now is not even applicable to us because we never agreed to that. We have a treaty. …they can’t just impose legislation on our people.” A revised Indian Act has been the central subject of Atleo’s leadership over the past three years.
The Chiefs voted Terrance Nelson out in the first ballot. The former Roseau River Chief, famous for blockading trains to get his settlement money and for using the word “gun” in relation to strategic interactions with government, brought a no-nonsense attitude to the election. Again, Wab Kinew provided the single most accessible insights into the candidates’ platforms in his online journal, “Tribe.” In a post on Kinew's website, Nelson explained his position:
“The reality is that there are missing and murdered women in this country; there are 30,000 children in care, our people are filling up the jails, we’ve got 60-95% unemployment in our First Nations, and we still want to be kind? My first goal is to get some solutions. Solutions are clear: foreign investment; share the natural resource base; but indigenous people think they’re powerless. That’s bullshit. We have tremendous power. We’re the ones supplying the immigrants with our lands and resources. We finance Ottawa – it’s not the other way around
“The problem that we have is that we’ve been controlled by lawyers. Economics is the real power, and we are sitting strategically on all the railway lines, all the pipelines. We don’t have to blockade, we have to sit down and say, ‘here Harper, this is what we want.’ Everyone says we have to go to court – I say that’s bullshit. We’ve won thirty odd court cases, we’re no closer to getting the resource base. The judge’s paycheque comes from Canada. Other people say, we should go see the Queen. Well, what is she going to do? She’s a little old lady. Then other people say, we should go to the United Nations. Well again, what are they going to do? Anyone who is waiting for the blue berets to come over here and enforce human rights in Canada is going to be waiting a heck of a long time.
“I’m going to be in front of the Iranian Parliament, I’m accepting an invitation and I will go before them whether I am National Chief or not. I will go before them and condemn the United Nations for their economic sanctions against Iran. I will also condemn the housing conditions in Canada for First Nations as economic sanctions,” said Nelson.
But it is precisely the no-nonsense position that was rejected by two thirds of First Nation Chiefs. Atleo’s leadership begins to look like a massive talk and log strategy: the elected Chiefs are logging plenty of hours in consultation and accommodation sessions where they haggle over single digit, final agreement percentages on income from their vast territories. That kind of money is enough to leave a few people living comfortably, but it’s certainly nothing to “build First Nations governance on,” as Atleo suggested to his membership Wednesday night. Negotiations in the status quo begin substantially below recognition of aboriginal title and go downhill from there.
Using the same motto as he did three years ago, “it’s our time,” Atleo gave little further clarification: “I believe it’s our moment.” To do what, he did not say. Perhaps a civil rights movement: "demanding fairness and equity for our kids in every aspect of their lives." But as Palmater pointed out, such a movement cannot come from a body which is singularly an advocacy group, a union of unique member nations: “The AFN is making decisions on nationalizing education, and they’re doing so in complete disregard for our historic treaty rights. They have subsumed the role of being a national leader as if they were a national government – and they are not.”
Atleo enjoyed back-thumping from comfortable BC treaty Chiefs such as Snuneymuxw’s Doug White, who decried his opponents as spouting “out-of-control rhetoric.” Those opponents, highlighted above, present themselves as candidates beholden to the people in their communities.
There is at least as much “out of control” among the grass roots community people in BC as there is in Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, Palmater’s home; or in the North West Territories, or even Roseau River. People from Sliammon, at Powell River, BC, resorted to physically blockading a polling station to prevent ratification of a Final Agreement under the BC Treaty Commission earlier this month – for many non-rhetorical reasons. An action camp is underway in Wet’suwet’en territory to leverage against pipeline development; apparently they don’t expect the AFN to come to the rescue either. The Tsilhqot’in, yet a further victim of the quasi-judicial branch of the Canadian government, are unlikely to take quietly to the BC Supreme Court of Appeal’s dismissal of their claims.
There is a significant disconnect between elected leaders and grass roots people, as methods to overcome growing disparity vary. Is it better to get a little bit now, sacrificing more into the future; or can poor people continue to hold out for justice in the conditions which form a breath taking statistical anomaly within Canada? Can an Assembly that disagrees on the answer to this question really stay in the boat together? Nelson has already suggested it can’t.
But then perhaps the Assembly is trying to keep their people out of the way of such average Canadians as those who responded to UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s predictions of a western Arab Spring for BC. Canadian commentators to the National Post article, which bore the controversial quote in January, declared severally that they would welcome the chance for an open fire fight. “Native Spring? Sure why not, then we can have Redneck Summer.”