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

Globe Editorial: First Take

Unity and respect are best ways to advance native issues Add to ...

With some factions within Canada’s native population threatening blockades and an escalation of tensions, and with Assembly of First Nation (AFN) national chief Shawn Atleo temporarily sidelined by exhaustion and illness, this is a good moment for all involved to reflect on how far things have come in the past few months. Chiefs who are advocating radical tactics should reconsider in light of the progress that peaceful measures have brought. Above all, they must recognize that unity is their greatest asset.

Not that anyone is suggesting that the 630 native communities across the country should be any more united on major issues than, say, the 10 premiers, or the West and Ontario, or any other of the at times fractious poles of Canada’s non-native population. So broad a country will inevitably breed divisions within groups such as the AFN that were designed to act as a single voice.

But the point is that the AFN is a legitimate body, and Chief Atleo, or his interim replacement, has been mandated by the membership to speak on a national basis. Claims to the contrary, such as those expressed by Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, go beyond simple disagreement. “The truth ... is that the true heroes are those people who have broken free from the dictates of colonial powers' schemes and refused to participate in trumped-up meetings,” Chief Nepinak said Monday. How can a meeting demanded by native groups, such as the one last week in Ottawa with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, be trumped up? What is the point of the AFN if some of its chiefs dispute the reason for its existence?

Chief Nepinak’s insurgency smacks more of an internal power struggle than anything else. “Some chiefs did not get the memo that their candidate lost [the recent AFN election],” Doug Kelly, the grand chief of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia, said Monday. Concomitant threats to blockade highways and railways have the same flavour. Chief Atleo responded properly to the demands of Theresa Spence for a meeting with the government and the Governor-General. Ms. Spence’s hunger strike brought about tangible results in a peaceful way (anyone who questions whether her liquid diet is a legitimate hunger strike is invited to try it).

Meanwhile, the founders of the Idle No More movement continue to call for peaceful demonstrations in the search for solutions to outstanding treaty and rights issues that have lingered unresolved for too long. This grassroots movement would become unstoppable if all the chiefs got behind it, rather than exploiting it for personal political gain.

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