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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

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Shawn Atleo on political attack ads Add to ...

Shawn Atleo is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Are you a politician?

I don't know if I necessarily consider myself a politician. By virtue of being elected, yeah, by other's characterization, I fit into that category.

You had to think about it. You're not certain?

I was born into a leadership role in my own home community, Ahousaht. Raised since my earliest days in my village knowing that I would one day potentially be thrust into a leadership role for my people, which I was. In some ways, I find this job as national chief an extension of a life orientation to serving my people.

Politics, by its nature, is adversarial. Is politics war?

In the leadership scenario I grew up with, I didn't see it as adversarial. There were always ideas that were brought forth. What I see as being different among first nations politics, if you will, is an effort to ensure that all ideas are fully considered, that there is a real effort to understand the breadth of ideas. No one is called crazy.

I really do see mainstream politics being used as a blunt object to push back and pound down competing concepts and ideas. I see that as an antithesis of the way first nations govern. Full efforts are made to achieve consensus decision-making.

Does anything go in mainstream politics? Are there no rules? Is no blow too low?

It feels to me as if the blows are getting lower. If there were rules or conventions, those are being stretched incredibly. That it seems to be about who is the least worst person, many people find frustrating. It is not inspiring.

Is there anything you personally would find too low in an attack ad?

I have a hard time when I see attacks against people. When it becomes deeply personal. When it becomes about destroying an individual, destroying their future, destroying them in the eyes of their family and their community.

In politics, do nice guys finish last?

I feel deeply that you attack the challenges, not the people. Gentle on people, hard on issues. I believe you can forge success by maintaining principles. It appears that concept is more and more compromised in mainstream politics.

Should attack ads have a place in politics?

Citizens shape their governments and how they operate. Attack ads, maybe they're like the accident on the side of the highway where people are compelled to look. Yet, we see participation rates diminishing in terms of going to the polls, or pushing governments to change their tactics so politics is based on merit.

Attack ads work, or they wouldn't be used. Can you suggest why?

Perhaps it is because there is a vacuum of real discussion.

I'm not sure if they always work. In the U.S. Democratic primaries, a candidate ran on a counter-position of hope, a platform of fear if you can distill it that simply. The candidate of hope ended up winning in the primary and went on to become president. If there is not an alternative, it becomes about the lowest common denominator.

Should attack ads be banned?

I'm not sure. It's about forcing a change of behaviour. Why shouldn't there be a powerful movement to call for a change in how politicians are elected? A push toward winning on merit, winning on ideas, to minimize, reduce as much as possible - I'm not sure we can ever completely get rid of it - attack positions. You don't have to attack people.

How would you advise a politician, subject to attack ads, to react: retaliate in kind or keep to the high road?

If you react, you are feeding into the same energy. You are saying, "This is relevant in our political conversation." On the other hand, if you don't respond, you'll have those that will say you're not standing up for yourself. It's a double-edged sword.

Politicians shouldn't be left to address this issue on their own. This is the sort of discussion that would be a brilliant one for postsecondary students across the country to tackle. What kind of political engagement system do we want going into the future? Is it the lowest common denominator? Are we prepared to step forward and say we can do much better?

The public seems complicit in the problem by accepting the lack of respect that attack ads offer and rewarding it.

Exactly. We're complicit by our complacency.

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