The head the Assembly of First Nations is stepping aside temporarily on doctor’s orders as tensions within his organization and a rift with other chiefs are intensifying.
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the AFN, announced Monday that the long days and nights of the past two weeks, when first nations leaders were preparing for the five-hour session last Friday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have caught up with him. He is suffering from norovirus infection and exhaustion.
Mr. Atleo has decided to withdraw just as schisms within his organization are becoming more pronounced, raising the risk that future agreements with the government will be ignored or rejected by native factions.
Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, issued a statement Monday saying the news media have made heroes of Mr. Atleo and his followers because that helps maintain the existing power structure.
“The truth, however, is that the true heroes are those people who have broken free from the dictates of colonial powers' schemes and refused to participate in trumped-up meetings that lead to no tangible outcomes for the benefit of our communities and the families relying on us,” Mr. Nepinak said.
But Doug Kelly, the grand chief of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia and a friend of Mr. Atleo, says the forces working against the national chief are being propelled by those who resent his re-election last July.
“I think there is a breakdown in our discipline and that breakdown is caused by dissatisfaction or sour grapes with election outcomes,” he told The Globe. “Some chiefs did not get the memo that their candidate lost, the election is over. So now they are threatening to go after the national chief, they are threatening a non-confidence vote. It’s all nonsense.”
After securing Mr. Harper’s commitment last week to take a more direct hand in first nations issues, Mr. Atleo said in a statement Monday that “we must seize the agenda and drive the next steps on each and every element.”
He has turned the job of preparing for the next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 24, over to Perry Bellegarde, the regional chief for Saskatchewan, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief for British Columbia. Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in a telephone interview that Mr. Atleo’s leave will in no way affect the effort first nations leaders are making to create a strong negotiating position in advance of the next meeting.
As the AFN executive puts together its bargaining strategy, protests are being planned for Ontario and parts of the Prairies on Wednesday by other chiefs who boycotted the meeting last week because, they said, it was conducted on terms established by Mr. Harper and not the first nations.
Specifically, the Friday meeting did not meet the demands of Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat who is five weeks into a hunger strike, that Mr. Harper and Governor-General David Johnston be in the same negotiating room with the first nations leaders. Jean Sock, one of two native men who had been fasting with her, ended his hunger strike Monday, saying he had to go home to be with his gravely ill mother.
Grand Chief Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, who last week called for the Wednesday day of action, said resentment over Mr. Atleo’s decision to go ahead with the meeting over the objections of other chiefs remains – but he didn’t criticize him directly.
Mr. Peters said Monday that he had seen no official word from the AFN about what was achieved last week. But the protests, he said, will go ahead.
The only way the impasse between the government and the first nations can be resolved, Mr. Peters said, is if Mr. Harper agrees to a “paradigm shift” – one that started to consider treaties as international documents between nations rather than domestic contracts. “It means they have to start from square one again,” he said.