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AFN chief vows to push economic self-sufficiency Add to ...

The new Assembly of First Nations national chief will push hard for business development in native communities, arguing that "economic independence is political independence" as he marked the 10th anniversary of the Marshall decision on fishing rights.

But Shawn Atleo, in what was billed as his first major speaking engagement since replacing Phil Fontaine this summer, said yesterday that the benefits will not be one sided. He argued that the booming native population is a resource Canada needs as it prepares for the coming demographic crunch.

"You've got the need for human capital, we've got a burgeoning youth population," he told a crowd that included Premier Darrell Dexter and local business leaders. "A rising tide lifts all boats. Prosperous first nations - is that not going to benefit the country as a whole?"

Mr. Atleo spoke one day before the anniversary of the 1999 Donald Marshall decision, a landmark Supreme Court ruling on native fishing rights. The ruling confirmed that treaty rights to fishing would supersede contemporary law.

"It doesn't matter what party is in power in Ottawa, we will not stop pushing for the recognition of our title and rights," Mr. Atleo told reporters after his speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. "Economic self-sufficiency ... will be an imperative moving forward."

That approach is evident already in Atlantic Canada, where a number of bands have made major development strides.

The Millbrook First Nation, in the Truro area, receives less than one-third of its budget from government, compared with at least 95 per cent in the early 1990s. And in Cape Breton, the Membertou First Nation has achieved ISO certification and has annual business revenues of $76-million from fishing, gambling, retail, information technology and the hospitality industry.

Many native communities have taken advantage of the Marshall decision to enter the fishing industry. Research to be released today shows the number of fishing licences held by natives in the region has quadrupled in a decade to more than 1,200. Revenues associated with the native industry have soared from $4.4-million in 1999 to an estimated $35-million this year, according to the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs.

The boom has had a downside - native fishermen have suffered the same low prices as everyone else - but one chief said the Marshall decision was still a game-changer.

"We were dependent on federal programs [before Marshall] that's all we had coming in," said Chief Noah Augustine, of the Metepenagiag First Nation in Miramichi. "When the Marshall decision came through, this represented a whole new opportunity for first nations, many of them for the first time, to be generating own-source revenues into their communities."

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