Shawn Atleo bristles at the suggestion that he has been working co-operatively with the federal government.
As he fights to keep his job as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations for another three years, Mr. Atleo is making it clear that he is fully prepared to do battle with Ottawa to ensure the prosperity of his people.
“This is not about co-operation, this is not about surrendering,” he said Thursday in an interview. “This is about standing firm and confronting, as you would any neighbour, when it comes to the overstepping of rights.”
Some of the candidates who hope to replace Mr. Atleo accuse him of getting too close to the Harper Conservatives, of helping the government create a panel on first nations education that was rejected by chiefs in three provinces, and of crafting a joint action plan with Ottawa without the consent of first nations across the country.
It is an indictment that has been lobbed at incumbent chiefs in previous years, sometimes successfully. It is an especially powerful message this year when first nations are fighting for their share of resource revenues and opposing development promoted by the federal Conservatives that they fear could cause irreparable harm to their land.
And it is a line of attack that Mr. Atleo must meet head-on if he is to come out on top in the vote by chiefs that will take place in Toronto in the third week of July.
A “moment of reckoning” is coming, he said. In its recent omnibus budget bill, Mr. Atleo said, the federal Conservative government is attempting to expedite natural resource development by ignoring treaty rights and leaving first nations out of the economic and environmental equation.
But “we will exercise our rights. And we will use every manner possible,” he said. “We will use the courts, we’ll go international, we will be on the front lines as I have in my own work, over the course of my life, standing up for our people’s rights.”
There is no major development project in Canada that is not adjacent to a first nation, Mr. Atleo said. And first nations cannot be considered just another stakeholder when it comes to resource extraction on their lands, he said. “That is a deep error and mistake and it could cause real dire consequences to the relationship going forward.”
There are eight candidates running for the job of national chief. Some of those who want to replace Mr. Atleo have made their willingness to take on the Harper government a central focus of their platform.
Terrance Nelson, the former chief of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in Manitoba, said in a statement published this week: “The Northern Gateway [pipeline] project is dead if I am elected National Chief.”
Dene Chief Bill Erasmus, another candidate, said this week at a conference on sustainable development in Brazil that Canada is guilty of breaching the promise to move forward in partnership with indigenous peoples that was part of an apology for the abuses of the residential school system.
Mr. Atleo, who has been sharply critical of the government when it has acted unilaterally on first nations issues, says he too is ready to challenge Ottawa if development proceeds without native involvement or consent.
First nations have never agreed to assimilate or to be subjects of the government, Mr. Atleo said. Courts have supported the first nations’ position, the Constitution affirmed it, and Canadians are more willing to recognize the need for change after media attention has focused on the dire conditions in places like Attawapiskat, he said. “I think there is a moment here that we’ve got to recognize has arrived.”