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john ibbitson

While Grand Chief Shawn Atleo fended off questions over claims that hundreds of native chiefs earned six-figure salaries, in the corridors outside the December gathering of the Assembly of First Nations, chiefs talked of a generational shift in leadership and attitudes.

"We don't want to just wallow in our misery," explained one who offered candour in exchange for anonymity. "We want to do something about it."

A recent Canadian Taxpayers Federation report said more than 600 band chiefs and councillors earn more than $100,000 a year, even as their reserves lack schools, proper housing and safe drinking water.

That figure is distorted, Mr. Atleo told reporters on Tuesday, because it includes travel, expenses and independently generated income along with salaries, all of which is detailed in the 148 reports that first nation governments are required to file to Ottawa annually.

"Our people are drowning in federal accountability," he told the chiefs. The average salary of an on-reserve elected official is $36,845, according to AFN and federal government data.

The assembly unanimously passed a motion committing all chiefs and councillors to disclose all salaries, honorariums and expenses to band members, which the AFN hopes will quell the controversy.

Despite the salaries brouhaha, the mood of many chiefs interviewed on Tuesday was upbeat.

"We're very optimistic," said Chief Peter Johnston of the Tslin Tlingit Council in Teslin, Yukon. "The environment is actually more than positive."

The chiefs are meeting at an important juncture in federal-first-nation relations. The formerly intransigent Harper government brought some closure to the treatment of Indians at residential schools with its apology, signed a United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples that it had previously rejected, and last week joined with the AFN to launch what Mr. Atleo promised the chiefs would be "a fundamental transformation in first nation education."

The younger chiefs, especially, say their most important priority is to mobilize federal and on-reserve resources to bring schools and teachers to reserves that lack either.

"There has been a generational shift over probably the last five years," said Chief Keith Matthew of British Columbia's Simpcw First Nation. Previous generations fought federal efforts to force assimilation and for treaty rights, he said.

But while those fights continue, "the younger chiefs are more like technocrats. We have the skills our leaders were advocating for 20 years ago."

As one veteran observer of the issue pointed out, while only 29,000 status Indians have a university degree today, that's just about 29,000 more than there were 40 years ago.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, who addressed the chiefs on Tuesday, urged them to fight for the same conditions on reserves that other Canadians enjoy.

"First nations citizens have waited too long to have the level and quality of services that other Canadians receive every day and quite frankly take for granted," she said.

Ms. Fraser acknowledged such advocacy went beyond her mandate as auditor-general, "but "I'm getting close to the end of my term, so I'm allowing myself a little liberty."

According to one reckoning, about half the 633 chiefs in the AFN want to shift the assembly's focus to improving the quality of life on reserves, while the other half continue to emphasize the fight for rights and land.

Most of the resolutions at the AFN meeting concerned grievances, demands, and complaints. But one endorsed a Bloc Québécois motion to give on-reserve natives the same educational opportunities as other Canadians.

"We have a lot more people with professional degrees coming back to the reserve" of Mississauga First Nation #8, between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, according to Chief Douglas Dabutch, "and they bring ideas with them."

One day, he hopes, his reserve might even have a school.