Canadian Governments like First Nations to be docile and quiet,visible only when they want to show off Canadian diversity or to signoff on a joint venture. The selection of the national chief of theAssembly of First Nations (AFN) is a bellwether for upcomingaboriginal-Ottawa relations. The election of Shawn Atleo as the newnational chief is a watershed for Canada and potentially BC.
Shawn is the first national chief of the AFN to be elected from BCsince the legendary George Manual back in the early 1970s. Mr. Atleo’selection signals a shift in direction for the AFN which has sufferedfrom internal tension over whether to pursue a more confrontational orconciliator relationship with Ottawa.
In his rapid rise to leadership the 42 year old Atleo hasdemonstrated the ability be forceful when necessary, yet bridgepotential rifts. As one of the leaders involved in BC’s LeadershipCouncil working to implement a “new relationship” between governmentand First Nations in BC, Atleo has shown the ability to bring FirstNations peoples together to push government to implement newapproaches. Yes, as a supporter of the Title & Rights Alliance (Mr.Atleo was first elected regional Vice Chief on a unity platformsupporting the more direct methods of the Alliance), and as formerchief representing the Nuu-chah-nulth, Mr. Atleo has supportedlitigation and direct actions when circumstances require it.
The media coverage of Mr. Atleo’s victory highlighted the potentialrift in the AFN. The marathon voting showed the differing solitudes ofFirst Nations leaders east and west. Western leaders, most of who stillassert title to the land, air and water in their traditional territory,generally supported Mr. Atleo. Eastern leaders, most of who arestruggling to get Ottawa to respect existing treaties, supported hisopponents.
It took 23 hours and 8 ballots before Mr. Alteo prevailed.Conventional wisdom is that Mr Atleo will face challenges uniting theAFN given the division around the election. However, more importantthan treaty or non-treaty, east v. west, or confrontational versusconsolatory is developing a sophisticated legal, financial andpolitical strategy to advance First Nations interests Canada-wide. Toooften First Nations leaders rely exclusively on one tool. Putting alltheir eggs in one basket, whether that be political relationships orsaber rattling.
While asking nicely doesn’t hurt, seldom have indigenous peopleanywhere in the world been successful in advancing their interests berelying on the goodwill of governments. What has worked is the triedand true carrot and the stick, where First Nations develop legal orfinancial leverage and then use this leverage to lock down advances fortheir people. Mr. Atleo understands this.
In BC, the Haida, Gitanyow and Coastal Nations are implementingsophisticated legal, financial and political strategies to get morecontrol of the territories and protect it against industrial resourcesexploitation. Mr. Atleo can be an ambassador to share some of thesebest practices with First Nations across the country.
All the staff, Board and volunteers wish him well and look forward to a new approach to leadership.