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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo speaks about aboriginal health in Vancouver in March 2013.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Shawn Atleo has listened to grandmothers in the Arctic, heard the concerns of the youth in his home village of Ahousaht on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and felt Ottawa's cold winters and its harsh politics, making him ideal for the new British Columbia position of Shqwi qwal.

A Shqwi qwal, pronounced she-qwall, is a West Coast aboriginal name given to a community leader who helps build new paths and relations.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said that there is no better connected, respected or qualified aboriginal communicator in Canada as she appointed Atleo as Canada's first Shqwi qwal at a ceremony at Vancouver Island University on Thursday.

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The former Assembly of First Nations National Chief said it was time to come home and embrace a moment in history where British Columbia must engage in deep and vulnerable discussions between its aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.

Atleo described the Shqwi qwal as the person who ensures everyone has their say when the community meets in the village longhouse. The Shqwi qwal often does more listening than talking, but the person's wisdom and respect ensures that concerns and issues are aired fully and completely.

Atleo and Clark said British Columbia is at moment where aboriginals and non-aboriginals face social, cultural and economic issues that require understanding and acknowledgment of each other to drive economic and social prosperity.

"We need to hear each others stories. We need to acknowledge each others struggles," said Clark, citing the recent apology in the legislature for the hanging of six Tsilhqot'in chiefs 150 years ago and the current economic agenda to develop a liquefied natural gas industry.

But Atleo went deeper, saying difficult questions must be pursued and probed to bring about reconciliation and strong relationships.

"It's incumbent upon us to go deeply into these conversations," said Atleo, who plans academic and community meetings between aboriginals, non-aboriginals, government and industry representatives.

"It's about this work of reconciliation that we're pushing up against the premier and her colleagues," he said. "We don't stand idly by. We go to the heart of this, the difficult conversations."

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Atleo's impassioned address touched on his perceptions of Canada and his time in First Nations politics, including his decision earlier this year to quit as national chief despite being elected to a second term.

"I travelled from Coast to Coast to Coast and I spent time in villages in the Far North, in the Atlantic Coast, with little kids, with grandmothers," he said. "I had grease from having a goose dinner drip on my chin. I listened to the elders and participated in ceremonies."

"I heard about the hope," said Atleo. "I heard about the pain. I heard about the promise expressed about the future, as well as the challenges and the struggles we have."

Atleo abruptly resigned as national chief last spring after being the subject of intense aboriginal criticism over the federal Conservative government's $1.9-billion deal for First Nations education.

Upon reflection, he said he accomplished what he set out to do when the chiefs sent him to Ottawa. Atleo said Canada now knows it must do more to improve and fund education for aboriginal children.

"Look at what's possible," he said. "If we were to close the education gap and employment gap of indigenous young people in this country, it would add $400 billion to the Canadian economy."

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Atleo said Clark's plans to engage First Nations following last June's Supreme Court of Canada decision granting title to a large swath of land in central B.C. to the Tsilhqot'in Nation is an opportunity everyone must explore.

"This is a vast country," he said. "There's indigenous peoples with over 50 language groups. We are everywhere. We're adjacent to every river, every major natural resource that (companies are) seeking to develop."

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