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Returning Atleo sidesteps Spence, Idle No More

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo addresses a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.


Facing what he calls a critical moment in history, Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo announced he will return to work later this week after 10 days absence.

In a statement issued by the AFN, Mr. Atleo says recent events have made first-nations issues a higher priority for government than at any other time in recent years, making this a moment that must be seized. But his statement made no mention of the momentum of the Idle No More movement or the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, which have both presented a challenge to his organization. Instead, he praised the "proud and determined voices of our peoples" whose actions "from coast to coast to coast have achieved this unprecedented attention. Our demand for greater justice, fairness and political, social and economic development has never been closer to achievement," Mr. Atleo said.

The national chief said he is making good progress in his recovery from a stomach bug and exhaustion and is keen to return to work. The AFN is hoping to meet with the Prime Minister and Governor-General on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of a summit held last year, although it's not clear whether that will happen.

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There has been much speculation about a struggle for power behind the scenes at the AFN ever since the national chief announced that he was taking a leave of absence to convalesce just days after a pressure-packed meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on January 11. Afterward, a handful of chiefs criticized Mr. Atleo's approach for various reasons, including a perceived lack of emphasis on treaty issues and a coziness with the federal government. Mr. Atleo acknowledged that criticism in his statement and responded with a call for unity.

"Some have been critical of that process, and critical of our decision-making structures," Mr. Atleo said. "They are not perfect. Some reflect the colonial past we reject. They can be improved and that is a discussion we must have. We have always recognized that our peoples and their leaders are our decision-makers. As leaders, we come together to advocate, to fight for the achievement of the demands they have chosen."

Roger Augustine, the regional chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island who assumed some of the national chief's leadership while he was away, said Mr. Atleo will be returning to an organization that has patched up some of its differences in his absence. He said Mr. Atleo's support is now "stronger than ever."

"He's a good man," Mr. Augustine said. "These are powerful days, powerful times. We've reached a point in our lives to unite."

Mr. Augustine added that he expects Mr. Atleo will make specific statements about Idle No More and about Chief Spence once he's back to work. He supports both, he added.

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