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john ibbitson

When it became apparent that Shawn Atleo was on the brink of winning a second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations without opposition, a spate of candidates threw their names in, hoping to stop him.

The seven challengers more or less share a common beef: That Mr. Atleo has been too cozy with the Harper government, and that it's time to become more militant in defending native rights.

We'll learn on Wednesday whether any of the challengers can coalesce opposition to Mr. Atleo's more co-operative approach. But the chiefs assembling in Toronto this week could be missing a larger truth, which could lead them to make bad choices that will deepen the poverty and pain that too many people living on reserves endure.

The chiefs think their influence over federal and other governments will increase as the native population increases. It won't. The ability of Canada's first nations to influence the national agenda is likely to diminish, not grow. The Assembly of First Nations is a weakening force. If the chiefs don't reach deals on settling land claims, sharing resources and reforming education now, they may not get a chance later.

According to Statistics Canada, 361,000 people self-identified as North American Indian were living on reserves in 2006. Most are young: half the population is 25 or under. That's because native women used to have a lot of children. Note the words "used to." Around 1970, as the baby boom ended, the fertility rate among Canadian women in general had declined to 2.1 children per woman, which is the level at which a population stabilizes with as many births as deaths. But the aboriginal birth rate (Indian, Métis and Inuit) was 5.5 children per woman, which is why there are so many young native Canadians today.

Since then, the aboriginal fertility rate has dropped like a stone. By the middle of the last decade, it had reached 2.6 children per woman. That's still considerably higher than the non-aboriginal fertility rate of 1.5, but it is close to stabilization. This means that, a generation from now, the on-reserve Indian population will peak at around 550,000 and will then level off or even start to decline.

But a generation from now, Canada will be a very different place. Every year, about 250,000 immigrants arrive. The entire on-reserve first nations population equals considerably less than two years of immigration. Very few of the new arrivals have European backgrounds. By 2031, two thirds of the population of Toronto will be what Statistics Canada calls visible minorities. Natives will represent less than one half of 1 per cent of the city's population.

These new arrivals can empathize with the treatment of Canada's native population by the European settlers and their descendants because their ancestors also suffered under colonial masters. But they bear no responsibility for the maltreatment of aboriginal Canadians. They are not the descendents of the oppressor; they themselves are the descendents of the oppressed.

For that reason, as the years pass, new Canadians are likely to become increasingly impatient with demands from the first nations. Native leaders will find an ever-diminishing appetite among the broader Canadian population for apology and redress. There simply won't be the same sense of guilt.

The first nations will, of course, be able to turn to the Constitution and the courts. But experience suggests that a small and shrinking minority has little hope of defending its claims if there is ever-lessening support for those claims among the general population. This is what native leaders face.

If the first nations want a share of revenues from resources on lands they claim, or from oil or natural gas lines traversing those lands, they should make a deal while they still can. In the future, no deal may be available.

And the chiefs should also bear in mind a future of steadily diminishing influence as they choose the next leader of their assembly.

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