OTTAWA – Over the past few days, as National Chief Shawn Atleo has been buffeted by harsh division among chiefs, protesters in the streets and a hunger protest with no obvious resolution, there were “fleeting” moments when he wondered whether he should stick with the job.
He persevered, inspired by the people he meets on a regular basis on reserves.
But as everyone took a deep breath on Saturday after a tumultuous week of politicking and brinkmanship that culminated in a chiefs’ meeting with Stephen Harper on Friday afternoon, Atleo, the chiefs, the government and the protesters are all gearing up for an equally difficult Round 2.
“To be honest, I don’t thing any of us who face challenges don’t have fleeting moments about how challenging these are,” the national chief said in an interview after he and his team left Harper’s office in Ottawa’s Langevin Block.
“But I’m driven by the faces of the young people I meet. I’m driven by the horrors of accompanying a family to the morgue when they identify the body which is barely recognizable of their 16-year-old daughter who was brutally murdered.”
He reminds himself that none of the bare-knuckle politics he faces is as difficult or as important as the living conditions many First Nations people face daily.
“The challenges that we might face in our daily lives, I know that our people struggle every single day.”
Atleo will need that kind of guidance as he turns to implementing the decisions reached between Ottawa and the chiefs. The challenges are immediate.
For one, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is still denying herself solid food, and there seems to be no immediate compromise or solution in the works.
“Yesterday (Friday) was a long day and a long battle for everyone. For now, everyone needs to rest,” Danny Metatawabin, Spence’s spokesman, said to explain why she was not taking visitors on Saturday. “The hunger strike continues.”
The Idle-No-More protesters appeared to be regrouping for further demonstrations in the next week with only a few reports of protest activity across the country Saturday.
And there was talk of blockades and demonstrations against pipelines and mining development in hot spots across the country.
At the same time, the Assembly of First Nations is fractured, even as it is tasked to figure out if diverse regions can sit down and re-examine the treaties that have defined their relationship with the Crown for decades, or even centuries.
The internal AFN politics are “tremendously difficult,” Atleo acknowledged.
Many chiefs wanted to boycott the talks with the prime minister on Friday since Harper would not agree to include the governor-general in the gathering. But Atleo said received many private messages from supporters urging him to proceed with the meeting and he never lost the confidence of his executive. He is required to follow their instructions, and they never issued a formal call not to meet Harper in his working office.
“There’s no question that there is a lot diversity amongst our nations. I respect and recognize that to hear all voices is important.”
Now, Atleo may be meeting with Harper again as soon as Jan. 24, and he is under pressure from all sides to show concrete progress, not just more procedure.
But the commitment to revisit treaties and speed up talks for land claims means negotiations between the government and individual regions on incredibly complicated topics involving historical documents, oral tradition and complex legal standards.
On top of that, there is widespread questioning of authority at every level. Chiefs are quietly questioning the power of the AFN as well as Atleo’s mandate. Citizens are questioning the power of their chiefs and the government. And the existing power structure is based on the Indian Act – legislation that all sides recognize as abusive, outdated and problematic.
“Right now, the negotiation principle that Canada stands on attempts to deny and extinguish our rights,” said Atleo. “What First Nations are seeking and what we will press for at the highest political level is recognition and implementation of our rights.”
Replacing the Indian Act with a structure based on treaties and land claims, however, will require a generous amount of political will on the part of Ottawa, and hard work among the treaty nations to figure out exactly what they want – some of which are far more advanced on that front than others, insiders say.
“We have to do our work at home. We need to get on with the work,” the national chief said.
For the chiefs, treaty implementation has long been the holy grail. The way they see it, modern treaties implemented in a fair fashion would better define First Nation control over land use, the environment, their own finances, education and health care, and a sustainable fiscal arrangement with Ottawa. Treaty implementation is the path to self-government and self-respect.
But for protesters filling the streets and radicals threatening blockades, talk of treaties is not nearly immediate enough.
“Nothing here. Idle On, ” tweeted one protester in response to news of the agreement between chiefs and the government to launch high-level treaty and land-claims talks.
Atleo is well aware that the pressure won’t subside until there is true promise of concrete change – and that has been elusive to many First Nations for generations. But he, like many other chiefs, say they are emboldened by the protests and the willingness to speak out.
“I think the voices of our people, they will not be silenced.”