Shawn Atleo’s supporters say he will cruise to a second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations when his leadership is put to vote in July, but the field of candidates is growing and so are the complaints about the co-operative nature of his relationship with the Harper government.
In announcing that he would be seeking another three years as head of Canada’s largest aboriginal organization, Mr. Atleo, a soft-spoken 43-year-old who is a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia, said the theme of his campaign is “Stronger Together.”
Obtaining broad support among the more than 600 first nations, with their multiple languages, cultures and treaty statuses, has not been an easy job.
Mr. Atleo did not win easily the 2009 race that brought him to the National Chief’s office. It took 23 hours and multiple ballots for him finally to be declared the victor. And there are those within first nations who have never been convinced that he was the right person to lead the AFN.
In the last half of his tenure, he has worked with the federal Conservative government to formulate a joint action plan to improve the lives of first-nations communities and to create a panel on education that was rejected by many first-nations leaders.
His critics say he did those things without the full approval of the country’s chiefs – something he denies – and the harshest among them accuse him of taking first nations down the path to assimilation.
One of those is Pamela Palmater, a 42-year-old Mi’kmaq lawyer from New Brunswick who teaches aboriginal governance and justice at Ryerson University in Toronto and who announced her candidacy Wednesday.
“In the last couple of years, there hasn’t been a strong voice, there hasn’t been a lot of real resistance to the strong-arm tactics of the Conservative government,” she said, “and look at what we have as a result. We have six to eight pieces of legislation that are going to be imposed on first nations unilaterally and against their will.”
Ms. Palmater is just one of an expanding slate of candidates for Mr. Atleo’s job. The full list will be announced next week but, so far, those who are confirmed or considering a run include Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, and Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation who is the AFN Regional Chief of the Northwest Territories.
“I used to think that, regardless of who the national chief was, we could make progress,” Mr. Erasmus said. “But more and more, I am thinking that it makes a lot of difference and there is a lot of truth to the fact that you have to have the right person in office.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Atleo received the backing of Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, a man who many first nations consider a sellout. It’s an endorsement that’s not likely to win him new supporters.
Some first nations leaders say there is an Anyone-But-Atleo movement growing. But Mr. Atleo still has his supporters and they say his diplomatic approach, both with the government and other first nations, is his great strength.
“He has to maintain a very cordial, productive relationship with the leaders of all of the parties,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, the president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council. “Does that mean he’s too close to government? No. That means he’s doing his job of advocating on our behalf.”
Mr. Atleo says the strength of the first nations is their diversity and he has answered the questions that existed in 2009 about his abilities, Mr. Kelly said. “He’s able to do the job. He’s done a great job.”
Mr. Kelly points out that Mr. Atleo has been a strong critic of measures in the federal budget that he says will hurt first-nations people, and also of the government decision to appeal a human-rights case that would have provided children on reserves with access to the same levels of welfare that is provided to other Canadian children.
“There are significant differences,” he said, “so I don’t get this notion that we are too close.”