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Native leaders ponder the path of most resistance

The Assembly of First Nations, in conclave, inhabits a world not easily recognized by those outside the native community: one of occupation, sovereign rights and resistance.

Native leaders passionately embrace that world, which informs the campaigns of the seven challengers seeking to unseat Shawn Atleo as national chief.

But the odds appear to favour Mr. Atleo nonetheless, for the reason expressed by one chief from a Prairie province who was listening at the back of the room.

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"We have to live with what we've got," he said.

Chiefs speaking candidly in exchange for not being on the record criticized Mr. Atleo for acting as though the AFN were a government and he its first minister, able to speak on behalf of the first nations in negotiations with Ottawa.

He has too often co-operated with the Harper government, they said, when the national chief should be asserting the treaty rights of first nations and their rightful claim to a share of any natural resource wealth.

"The AFN has basically been taken over by lawyers," accused Manitoba chief Terrance Nelson, one of the challengers.

"In the last few years, the AFN has become a little too comfortable," said Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and professor who is one of the most prominent challengers to Mr. Atleo. "We have to be uncomfortable for the benefit of our people."

Nonetheless, Mr. Atleo appears to have fairly broad, if reluctant, support among the chiefs, who credit his negotiating skills in helping convince Ottawa to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in advancing education reform and other issues.

No challenger appears to have moved from the pack to unseat him. The sense in the assembly Tuesday was that he will be re-elected Wednesday. But that does not mean the 600-plus chiefs are happy.

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First-nations leaders do not accept that their ancestors ceded any sovereignty over their traditional lands. For them, the federal government is an occupying power, and the tiny pittance they receive from it simply a fraction of the wealth taken from what is still rightfully theirs.

"I'm so done being Canada's victim," said Joan Jack, an Anishinaabe lawyer from Manitoba.

Mr. Atleo seemed aware that he is vulnerable among chiefs who feel he has not been sufficiently fierce in his advocacy.

"We must act on our treaties and inherent rights," he told the assembly. "…Justice for our lands means achieving an approach based on recognition and affirmation of our rights, not denial and extinguishment. … We will stand together. We will never compromise."

But he also promised to push for a national inquiry into violence against women, "to bring to full light this national tragedy, to achieve justice and healing."

How much should the AFN, as an advocate for first nations in Ottawa, focus on combating the problems that plague some reserves – violence, substance abuse, health issues, inadequate housing and education – and how much should it focus on rights and resources?

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The one is the answer to the other, the chiefs respond. The right to veto resource extraction on traditional lands, to negotiate a share of the wealth those resources generate, ultimately to exercise full sovereignty over those lands, is part of the solution to improving the quality of life on reserves.

But the chiefs also live in the real world, in which native Canadians are a minority population with rights, yes, but with limited power, and with pressing social issues at home.

"We need to get the monkey off our own back, first," one of them observed.

The AFN, under Mr. Atleo, cosponsored a panel with the Harper government that looked at improving the quality of education on reserves. Many chiefs, and at least one candidate, objected to the very idea of the panel.

"It's not for AFN to say, 'Here's how your education should go,'" Ms. Palmater protested.

And that is the question for the chiefs: work with the world as it is, or fight for the world they want.

Editor's Note: Phil Fontaine, not Shawn Atleo, was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations when the federal government issued its apology for the treatment of first nations students at residential schools in 2008. A previous version of this story contained the error. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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