OTTAWA – The head of Canada’s largest aboriginal organization, Shawn Atleo, is taking a “brief” sick leave in the midst of a political crisis.
Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the meetings and frustrations over the past two weeks have caught up with him, and his doctor has ordered him to rest.
“I regret to have to tell you that those long days have caught up with me. This weekend, my doctor ordered that I take some time now to rest and recover and I have agreed with my family that I do this now,” Atleo said in a statement.
“I will see you all very soon and will return re-invigorated and strengthened to work with you to drive this change together with all of you.”
Atleo has been the target of much criticism from other chiefs and First Nations people for agreeing to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week.
After a week of intense meetings, Atleo had managed to pull together a consensus on what topics the meeting should address. But he was not able to persuade Harper to have Gov.-Gen. David Johnston attend — a key demand of a faction of chiefs, including fasting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
Several leading chiefs said the assembly should have refused the meeting, because it didn’t take place on their terms, and on their turf. Chiefs from Manitoba and Ontario, and some from Saskatchewan, boycotted the Harper meeting and instead protested in the streets outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
After the meeting, criticism continued to pour in.
“Why would you let him (the prime minister) hurt our people like this!? What were you thinking,” tweeted Isadore Day, an outspoken chief from Serpent River in northern Ontario.
Atleo was re-elected last summer for his second three-year term. He won solid backing despite his opponents saying that he was too cosy with Harper and the federal government.
Atleo has named Regional Chief Roger Augustine, who represents chiefs from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, to chair and facilitate executive meetings in his absence. He said he has also asked senior staff to set up “working teams” to support the complicated preparations that are required to make good on the agreements reached last week with Harper.
“We have leaders in place to ensure that detailed work gets done. And now we have the public commitment of this government and this prime minister that they will treat these issues as their priorities.”
In the hours after the meeting with Harper, Atleo admitted to being exhausted and having “fleeting” moments of leaving the job, but said he was constantly inspired by the plight of his people.