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Mr. Atleo says this year has been about aboriginal empowerment and confidence.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of Canada's largest aboriginal community says 2013 was the year when First Nations pierced the national consciousness, forcing business, government and ordinary Canadians to give thought to the challenges facing native people.

It was also a year when the world lost one of its greatest freedom fighters with the death of Nelson Mandela. And Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says there are parallels to be drawn between the struggle of black South Africans and the fight of his people for their own inherent rights.

Mr. Atleo was on the plane with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other former prime ministers to attend the memorial service for Mr. Mandela in Johannesburg.

Some native leaders said his decision to accompany the Canadian contingent suggested too close a relationship between the AFN and the Harper government. But Mr. Atleo, who presented the South Africans with an eagle feather to be buried with their former president, says Canada's First Nations were right to pay tribute to Mr. Mandela.

"Knowing that he was a chief of a tribe, that's my own background as well, coming from a tribal background, and understanding the flow of social activism in South Africa," Mr. Atleo said in a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail. "… to walk by and spend a moment over the casket and to do a ceremony. You could feel the weight of history. There was something that was happening here."

There has been something happening in Canada as well. The year started with blockades and demonstrations organized under the banner Idle No More, a loosely knit movement created to protest the effect of federal legislation on native communities. That was followed by numerous, more localized, forms of protest.

The Lubicon Lake First Nation was granted the right to physically oppose a fracking operation on land west of Edmonton. A similar protest by the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick erupted in violence in October and forced the company to halt its operations until 2015. An independent review panel confirmed previous findings that a gold mine proposal for Fish Lake in British Columbia would have devastating environmental and cultural effects on the Tsilhqot'in. And opposition from First Nations represents a significant roadblock to the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The protests played out as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) continued to explore the tragic legacy of the system of church-run residential schools and as Canada confronted racist policies of its past.

In South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulted in structural changes in the way people live together, Mr. Atleo said. "We've got a TRC. We have a chance to accomplish structural shifts. … So this is what I think this year really represents. It's this notion of the piercing of consciousness, the raising of understanding about our history, where we fit in global events."

In March, a group of young Cree calling themselves the Nishiyuu Walkers trekked 1,600 kilometres from the shore of Hudson Bay to the Parliament buildings in support of Idle No More. It was one of the moments of 2013 that Mr. Atleo said he found most inspiring. "I think absolutely a feeling of empowerment has emerged, a growing confidence that we can be the drivers of change and this is the generation of youth that we've been waiting for, as it were," Mr. Atleo said.

There has been engagement by the government on such issues as education and treaty rights. But deep feelings of injustice and frustration continue on reserves, and some native leaders argue for more sovereignty from federal rule. This year saw the formation of a splinter group of First Nations, called the National Treaty Alliance, which accuses the AFN of working too closely with the government and is prepared to take a more hardline approach to the enforcement of treaties.

Mr. Atleo responded by saying the Treaty Alliance and the AFN can be complementary. "First Nations are on the ground, they are doing direct actions, they are standing at blockades in places like Elsipogtog when they don't feel that their rights are being recognized. Rightfully so. And we will stand together on these issues," he said.

Overall, he said, "it feels like we're beginning to be seen" – words his grandmother used after Mr. Harper apologized in 2008 for the treatment of children at residential schools. "That was an important step," Mr. Atleo said. "But there's a bigger step required. And the federal government, the Prime Minister, has, in my view, an opportunity, especially coming back from this trip together, to look at where Canada sits in its efforts to support the late Nelson Mandela, to now do this work, to take it to the next step at home."