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Shawn Atleo calls the aboriginal child poverty rate ‘shocking.’

Dave Chan

The leader of this country's largest indigenous group says Friday's National Aboriginal Day is an opportunity to reconcile the difficult history that native people share with other Canadians.

But as First Nations grow increasingly frustrated with a federal government they say is oblivious to their concerns, Shawn Atleo is talking less about conciliation and more about things that will be done to drive home the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Atleo, who is about to begin his fifth year as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), pointed to a new report that says half of all native children are living in poverty – a rate triple that of non-indigenous children.

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"It really should be received as shocking, and those words [in the report] have to be met with action," he said during an interview in his office in downtown Ottawa. "First Nations are not waiting, and will pursue the changes required on First Nations' terms."

National Aboriginal Day, which is observed each year on June 21, was conceived as a celebration of indigenous culture. But this year it also marks the start of what some native activists say will be months of protests.

A group called Sovereignty Summer, an evolution of the Idle No More movement, is launching a new Internet tool Friday. "It is a very slick campaign website which has some pretty up-to-date social media technologies attached to it which are going to significantly shift our game and our ability for mass mobilization, both here in the capital region in Ottawa but also across the country in every urban centre," explained Clayton Thomas-Muller, a spokesman for the group.

The AFN does not have a hand in that effort. But Mr. Atleo, who three years ago was talking hopefully about the willingness of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to work with him to resolve First Nations issues, is supportive of whatever peaceful actions are taken to make the point that the relationship is not working.

"All avenues are required," including blockades, he said. "I have spent 20 years being out on the land and being out on roads when required. And we are going to need to continue that full court press until the type of change that's required is brought about."

In 2008, Mr. Harper made a moving apology on behalf of the country for the treatment of aboriginal children at church-run residential schools.

"He said this should be the end of the kind of attitudes that created the residential schools," Mr. Atleo said. But the First Nations experience, he said, suggests there has been little change.

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The Conservative government, he noted, is fighting a human rights case launched by a native agency that says Ottawa is paying 22 per cent less for child welfare on reserves than the provinces pay for non-aboriginal welfare services. It has also stalled the attempt of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created by the settlement struck with residential school survivors, to obtain all of the documents it says are required to create a public record of the experiences endured by children at the institutions.

The government has also refused to call a public inquiry into what the Native Women's Association of Canada says are hundreds of murdered or missing aboriginal women and girls, Mr. Atleo added. And it has passed a spate of legislation that will directly affect native communities, and that First Nations say was drafted without their input and will have a negative impact on their people.

"And they are challenging us in the courts at every level even though we've won over 40 court cases," Mr. Atleo said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Harper countered that, in recent months, the government has worked with First Nations leaders to renew Canada's comprehensive claims policy, announced an education agreement to give First Nations in Northern Ontario greater control over on-reserve education, and implemented measures to help settle specific claims more quickly.

Mr. Atleo acknowledged movement on those fronts. And he said he sees a growing awareness on the part of business leaders and the public at large that there needs to be a more equitable relationship between aboriginal people and the government, especially when it comes to the sharing of resource revenues.

But so many other points of disconnect remain and "it doesn't have to be this way," Mr. Atleo said. "It's not what our collective ancestors thought we'd be doing at this juncture in our history."

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