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Eugene Boulanger from Tulita Sahtu, NWT, speaks to hundreds of people gathered in Victoria to support a push back on dirty energy projects on Oct.7, 2013. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
Eugene Boulanger from Tulita Sahtu, NWT, speaks to hundreds of people gathered in Victoria to support a push back on dirty energy projects on Oct.7, 2013. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

Is one voice enough to speak for Canada’s First Nations? Add to ...

‘Never forget who you work for.”

That’s Patrick Madahbee’s advice for whoever takes over after the abrupt departure of Shawn Alteo last week from the Assembly of First Nations.

Mr. Madahbee, the Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, was one of the chiefs involved in setting up the AFN. But he and other native leaders say Canada’s largest indigenous organization must now change to more closely reflect the wishes of those it represents.

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What they’re calling for: a new structure for the organization that was created to be the voice of the country’s more than 600 First Nations – one that would prevent the AFN and its national chief from being manipulated by the government or acting without the broad consent of aboriginals. Particularly aboriginal youth.

First Nations leaders acknowledge that will not be easy. But they say it’s the only way forward if governments and industry have any hope of developing resources in and around their traditional territories without conflict. And if the youngest and fastest growing segement of our population is to stop suffering from the lowest standards of living in the country.

A pawn for Harper?

Mr. Atleo, cerebral and passionate about improving on-reserve schools, was trying to address poverty and despair in aboriginal communities – and the low graduation rates that contribute to them – by endorsing a controversial First Nations education bill drafted by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But he made a major political error when he joined Mr. Harper on the Blood reserve in Alberta in February to announce that the government would provide an additional $1.95-billion in funding for on-reserve education.

His announcement caught many of the chiefs whom Mr. Atleo was supposed to represent by surprise.

In December, they had passed a resolution giving Mr. Atleo (who had voiced his own concerns about what the government was proposing) the mandate to press Canada for the changes they said were necessary to make the legislation acceptable: more First Nations control, a statutory funding guarantee, the incorporation of language and culture into the curriculum, no unilateral oversight by government and meaningful engagement by aboriginals in any future plans.

But instead of coming back to the chiefs with the results of his discussions and asking for their approval, there was Mr. Atleo standing with Mr. Harper giving the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act his blessing.

Mr. Atleo said the act met the five conditions spelled out by the chiefs in the December resolution. Many chiefs argued that it did not. They saw the final legislation as an attempt to cement the Aboriginal Affairs Minister’s grip on the operation of their schools while downloading the liability onto the shoulders of the First Nations.

Anger began to build. There were calls for rallies and protests to demonstrate against the act.

And Mr. Madahbee says there were also calls on social media “for impeachment of the national chief.”

Like the head of the United Nations, the national chief has never been authorized to strike deals on behalf of the many First Nations – as different from each other as Poland is from Denmark. The AFN is supposed to be the voice of the First Nations people, not its governing body.

Mr. Atleo understood that – and said so many times to the media and to chiefs’ assemblies. But the Conservative government chose to ignore his job description and used his endorsement to justify pressing ahead with the bill over the widespread objections of native leaders.

Now that Mr. Atleo is gone, in fact, many of the same chiefs who opposed him say he was merely an unfortunate pawn in a Conservative government game.

“I think, in his zealousness to do something, he got sucked in by Harper’s strategy,” says Mr. Madahbee. But Mr. Atleo’s problems as national chief did not begin with education legislation.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a spokesman for the loosely-knit native protest group Idle No More, says the tensions go back to January of last year, when chiefs converged on Ottawa.

They had hoped to meet with Mr. Harper about the issues raised by Ontario Chief Theresa Spence – who had gone on a hunger strike to demand that treaty obligations be met – and by demonstrations that were taking place across the country under the Idle No More banner.

Mr. Harper balked at confronting hundreds of native leaders in a single room. So, over the objections of many chiefs, Mr. Atleo and other members of the AFN executive agreed to meet with him privately.

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