The Assembly of First Nations' national chief says that any divisions in the aboriginal community are trumped by shared objectives, including ending "the status quo," and that many of the community's goals are similar to those of the rest of Canadians.
In his first public appearance since taking a 10-day leave of absence due to illness, Shawn Atleo played down the apparent schism among chiefs across the country.
"Of course there is going to be wide-ranging opinions," Mr. Atleo said Thursday in Vancouver, flanked by leaders of the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and AFN regional chief Roger Augustine. Mr. Atleo agreed it is not his place to negotiate treaty rights but to help open the door: "We are deeply diverse … Canadians are used to having regional differences."
Before Mr. Atleo took his leave, some chiefs had expressed anger with him for not taking a firm line with the Harper government after it placed limits on the size of an AFN delegation that was to meet with the Prime Minister on Jan. 11, as well as Ottawa's refusal to allow Governor-General David Johnston to attend.
Regional chiefs from Manitoba, Ontario and the Northwest Territories boycotted the meeting, and last week AFN regional chiefs were preparing to discuss the process of holding a no-confidence vote against Mr. Atleo.
A spokesman for the AFN said the topic did not end up being raised.
At the Vancouver press conference, support for Mr. Atleo among the regional chiefs appeared strong.
"It makes me sick that some of our people, some of our chiefs, have gone after our national chief," said Shane Gottfriedson, tribal chief of the Shuswap first nation, addressing the AFN leader. "You have our full support, national chief."
Mr. Atleo said the economy should be seen as a unifying issue both among aboriginals themselves and also with the rest of Canada.
"We know that Natural Resources Canada said that there is around $650-billion in natural resource projects that they seek to develop in the coming decades," he said. "That's where there is confluence; there is a merging between interests – between governments who wish to see this development occur – to create jobs to build an economy based on the vision they have been granted the obligation on the part of Canadians to develop and pursue.
"But we have the right and the responsibility to stand up for the water and the air and the lands around which the development is proposed to take place… we need to seize on this moment and not allow it to go by."
Mr. Atleo called on the Harper government to also help take the lead in implementing an eight-point plan presented to the Prime Minister at the Jan. 11 meeting. The plan, among other things, involves assurance that first nation issues, specifically treaty rights and comprehensive claims, will receive oversight from the highest political levels.
"There have been instances where we've demonstrated an ability to forge solutions together with government.…What's different here is that we're looking to create the space and the opportunity for there to be, for example with treaty nations, treaty-by-treaty, nation-to-nation treaty implementation talks," Mr. Atleo said. "That's something the Prime Minister's government said it was open to last January … We need to now test that mandate. That's the challenge that is immediately before us."
Mr. Atleo added that the office of the national chief should not be viewed as the head of a government, but rather a position that "helps open doors" for chiefs to negotiate with the federal government.
Mr. Atleo also addressed the ending of the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on Thursday, as well as the impact of the Idle No More movement.
"Now I think people understand there are about 100 communities that have similar conditions as Attawapiskat," he said. "That meeting on [Jan. 11] would only have happened because of the type of energy our people are expressing to the country right now, to what was happening on Victoria Island and through the actions of Chief Spence."
With a report from Gloria Galloway