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The current Chief of The Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, smiles only slightly at his great aunt, Gertrude Frank, right, after the results of the first ballot were announced. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The current Chief of The Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, smiles only slightly at his great aunt, Gertrude Frank, right, after the results of the first ballot were announced. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

Atleo’s victory a sign national chiefs want to work with Ottawa Add to ...

In giving Shawn Atleo their emphatic endorsement for a second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s native leaders chose to work with Ottawa rather than fight against it.

But if the first fails, the second could follow.

Mr. Atleo has a clear mandate to work with the Harper government on reforming education on reserves, fighting the scourge of violence against native women, and improving housing and health for Canada’s native people.

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The majority of chiefs endorsed Mr. Atleo’s re-election on the first ballot, though it took two more votes for him to reach the required 60 per cent. Such strong support answers the complaints of critics who said Mr. Atleo should be taking a more confrontational approach in demanding control over resources on land claimed by first nations.

“The office of national chief is not the head of first nations government,” Mr. Atleo said after his victory, when asked whether it was time to become more forceful in advocating native claims.

The chiefs themselves are the head of their governments, he said, “and the role of the national chief is to support their efforts.”

Nonetheless, with Canada’s economic future hinging increasingly on exporting natural resources to emerging markets, and with the Harper government committed to streamlining the approval process for developing those resources, clashes over control between government and first nations are inevitable.

“A lot of people feel that some of the issues that have come up in the last 18 months with the Harper government threaten our very survival as distinct, indigenous societies,” said Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. He was not an Atleo supporter.

But most chiefs sided with Mr. Atleo’s role of advocate rather than agitator.

“He’s there to lobby for us, endorse for us, and open the doors for us, and that’s what Shawn’s been able to do,” said Chief Dean Sayers of the Ojibways Batchewana First Nation of Sault Ste. Marie, in Northern Ontario.

If there is a division among the chiefs over the proper role for the leader of the AFN, Mr. Atleo might have been attempting to bridge that divide when he delivered a fiery victory speech Wednesday evening.

“We are indeed a powerful people,” he told the Assembly. And in forcing government and corporations to recognize first nation land rights “we will take our rightful place in our respective territories.

“…We will stand together and put the final stake in colonialism.”

Nonetheless, the Harper government will quietly welcome Mr. Atleo’s return.

In a pro-forma statement, Mr. Harper congratulated Mr. Atleo on his victory.

“I look forward to continue working with National Chief Atleo to keep building solid partnerships between First Nations people and other Canadians, to the mutual benefit of us all," he said.

On education, especially, the Conservatives believe they have made solid progress, thanks to a panel co-sponsored by the federal government and the AFN.

They appreciate a national chief who, while advocating for the treaty, land and resource rights of first nations, prefers to search for common ground rather than to erect barricades.

But circumstances could push Mr. Atleo toward a more confrontational stand, whatever his preferred approach, as Canada moves aggressively to sell its natural resources into emerging markets.

Ottawa is attempting to push through a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific, despite the adamant opposition of some native leaders.

There is both opportunity and opposition, as companies seek to mine new mineral deposits in Northern Ontario, with the provincial government’s encouragement but native objections.

And the chronic issues of unclean water, foul housing, poor health, suicide and other forms of violence that afflict many first nations communities seem never to grow better, and seem often to grow worse.

Advocating for incremental improvement in the quality of life of natives on reserves, while demanding fundamental recognition of long-denied land rights, will challenge Mr. Atleo’s diplomatic and political skills. If he fails, in three years a more credible challenger may emerge.

But for now at least, the National Chief can take satisfaction in knowing that his chiefs, in voting him a second term, have congratulated him on a job well done. So far.

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