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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo waits for the start of a TV interview in Ottawa on Jan. 20, 2012.

Dave Chan/dave chan The Globe and Mail

The head the Canada's largest aboriginal group is defending his leadership against attacks from chiefs who accuse him of engaging in co-operative efforts with the federal government without their sanction.

"You, the chiefs, are the Assembly of First Nations and, as we have from the inception of our organization, we work on the basis of building consensus and providing direction to the secretariat to carry out your instructions," Shawn Atleo wrote Friday in a letter to chiefs across the country. "We cannot and will not design or impose solutions."

Mr. Atleo's co-operative efforts with the federal government to create the Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan to bolster first nations prosperity garnered mixed reaction from the hundreds of chiefs who represent a broad range of communities with widely varying interests.

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Some approve of the work that Mr. Alteo has done to try to "reset" the relationship with Ottawa and improve the outcome for people on reserves – particularly in the areas of education and economic advancements.

But others do not. And, as contenders assess their prospects of defeating him in an election that will be held in July, the condemnations have grown louder.

Many first nations refused to participate in an education panel that was struck in late 2010 by the government and the AFN and were quick to reject its findings when they were released last week.

And chiefs attending a meeting this week of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations unanimously endorsed a motion rejecting the joint action plan that was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mr. Atleo at a Crown-first nations in Ottawa last month.

Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, the author of the motion, told The Globe and Mail there had been no consultation with the chiefs of his region when the plan was drafted and he believed it to be a "B.C.-driven process." Mr. Atleo is from British Columbia.

Chiefs in Manitoba have also said they do not endorse the way forward that was charted at the meeting in Ottawa. And other organizations, like the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians in Ontario, have said they believe little was accomplished at the gathering that had been heralded at the outset as a historic event.

But, in his letter, Mr. Atleo told the chiefs the meeting was just a "first step" in confirming that first-nations issues deserve national prominence.

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He pointed out the various opportunities that have been provided for the chiefs to offer their input. And he reminded the chiefs he has spent his tenure travelling to first nations in every region of the country to ensure that efforts have been coordinated.

"My role has been, as I said [when elected]in 2009, to open doors – kick them down as necessary – and then get out of the way for first nations to drive and design a path forward," Mr. Atleo wrote.

"Nothing is pre-determined and I reiterate this work is only to create the opportunity for regions, treaty areas and nations themselves to drive forward their specific plans," he wrote. "There are no one-size-fits-all approaches."

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