In conversation: Shawn Atleo -

In conversation: Shawn Atleo

On moving beyond residential schools, overcoming cynicism and trusting the Tories

On moving beyond residential schools, overcoming cynicism and trusting the Tories
Photograph by Simon Hayter

AFTER TWO YEARS as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo is cautiously optimistic about the relationship he is forging with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. On Tuesday, at the assembly’s annual meeting in Moncton, N.B., he proposed replacing the federal Aboriginal Affairs Department with a system that allows bands more autonomy and lessens the heavy federal intervention required under the Indian Act. “The patterns of the past have to be essentially smashed,” he told Maclean’s. Atleo, a hereditary chief in the tiny B.C. island community of Ahousaht, reads vindication in the recent report by now-retired auditor general Sheila Fraser. It warns, as Atleo and successive national chiefs have said, that the quality of life on reserves is worsening and the existing system of financing and accountability must be overhauled.

Q: The last time we spoke, you called your home community of Ahousaht a microcosm of First Nations across the country. So, how is Ahousaht faring?

A: Oh, it has its struggles, to be frank. They’re working on them, and we’ve got a new generation of leadership coming on.

Q: There were issues of addiction and suicide, and there was an attempt last year to turn to traditional ways to deter drug dealers and chronic offenders. This included the threat of banishment if the offenders didn’t agree to go through treatment and an acculturation process. Has using traditional ways worked?

A: There’s definitely a sense of taking greater control of your life when you don’t leave it up to the [justice] system. I think that’s happened. The community had a referendum on a bylaw to have intoxicants not allowed in the village. And it passed. Council will work closely, not only with the RCMP detachment in the village, but within the traditional governance system. The bigger indications are things like our high school, which is going to be completed by September. There’s community expansion happening. There are eco-tourism ventures that are taking place. We’re seeing the young generation say there’s got to be ways we can support the health, wellbeing and future prosperity of our community. But make no mistake, the underlying struggles, they continue.

Q: There was at Ahousaht, as in many other communities, a legacy of residential schools. How did that impact the lives of people of your generation who didn’t attend such schools?

A: To be very frank, high rates of violence. Deep dysfunction in the community. Deep poverty. A real sense of conflict between the historical ways as well as the modern ways. Overall, I think it helped rob our people of a sense of self-confidence and being confident in our own identities. But it feels like we’re turning the corner to recognizing that none of us set up those systems of residential schools. We didn’t write the Indian Act. The First Nations didn’t, nor did the average Canadian.

Q: June 11 marked the third anniversary of the Prime Minister’s apology for Canada’s residential schools program. How important is that? I’ve heard a lot of noble-sounding words over the years that went nowhere. How do you take it beyond mere words?

A: My late grandmother remarked when we were together at the apology [in the House of Commons], “Grandson, they’re just beginning to see us.” That’s a profound statement for a lot of reasons. She raised 17 kids, all of whom went to residential school. I was the first generation not to in our community and our family. I certainly felt the impact in our community but I didn’t have to face those impacts directly. Her words were also encouraging. They’re about looking forward. She said, “What I realized is that I couldn’t turn this heavy page in a dark chapter of our history. It’s going to take every single one of us. First Nations and Canadians.” If residential schools existed for 150 years under the guise of education—education as a tool of oppression—it makes sense that we turn it around. Like she said, “We no longer fight our fights with our fists. We fight our fights with education.” So chiefs have made education our top priority.

Q: In June there was the release of a profoundly depressing report by now-retired auditor general Sheila Fraser. She looked at 31 audits conducted over 10 years related to Aboriginal programs. She generally found things are getting worse. What are the roots of that failure?

A: The essence of it is still a deep disconnect. She has made it clear, it was actually quite explicit, no longer should we do this any other way except with First Nations working with Canada. What’s implied is that it’s been nothing but unilateral action. First Nations find themselves fighting a status quo that they rejected. This needs to be about joint planning. The Prime Minister and I have had conversations just like that over the course of the last year, both agreeing that we need to bring forward all the resolutions and priorities that the First Nations have developed over the years. We need to bring that together with the government’s thinking and jointly design a set of priorities on how we can make real progress in a short period of time at the front end of the fresh mandate this government has.

Q: A centrepiece of that is the Joint Action Plan you announced last month with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. It sets priorities for improving the lot of Aboriginal people: education, accountability, improved negotiation and treaty implementation. Does this signal a new working relationship?

A: I’m really very hopeful that there’s a real commitment behind what I believe are hopeful words in the action plan. Canada, being a relatively young country, is a work in progress. While we look forward we have to bring forward that original treaty relationship. It is important to understand what Canada, and being Canadian, is about. That work in progress includes the need to reconcile those relationships. We need to reach out to the monarchy as well. It all comes down to political will. This is with the Prime Minister himself and Duncan directly. That’s what we’re hoping to do, to elevate it to the political level. We’ve had initiatives down in the bureaucracy and it’s just not done the job.

Q: You’re investing a lot of hope in that relationship with Stephen Harper. Why do you feel he’s committed to this?

A: Coming out of a recession, there’s still a fragile economy. There’s a labour shortage coming in 2017. We’ve got an aging mainstream populace. If we were to close the education and labour market gap in one generation, it could result in $400 billion in additional output to the Canadian economy, and $115 billion in saved government expenditures. So one other aspect I expressed to the Prime Minister is that Canada is, in fact, a successor state and has a responsibility to uphold treaties that were made with First Nations before Canada was even formed. We can’t work in isolation. The status quo has to be significantly changed, and these young people in the communities where I go—where they have no schools, they use slop pails in their homes, they have no running water—they need to see, taste and feel results sooner rather than later. If we can support First Nations and lift them out of these dire situations it’s going to make the country stronger.

Q: In a recent speech you talked about the funding gap between students on reserve and those elsewhere in the country, as much as $2,000 or $3,000 per child. How does that gap affect their education experience?

A: The average kid on reserve does not have access to computers, funds for recreation, funds for teacher training. That gap grows up to $7,000 per child in some parts of the country. We have regions of the country that have about a 28 per cent kindergarten to [Grade] 12 graduation rate. We need 65,000 post-secondary grads to close the gap with the rest of the population.

Q: Annual education spending growth has been capped at two per cent for years.

A: Not only two per cent. But there is no protection for sustainable funding. No equitable funding, which is what we’re pursuing at a minimum, although I think there are strong arguments to be made that we have some real catch-up to do when it comes to education. We have governments say, “We’re putting in all this money and chiefs are unaccountable, [Aboriginal] governments are unaccountable, systems are unaccountable. We’re not going to have you write 100 reports, you’re going to write 200 reports.” The auditor general says First Nations are drowning in a sea of accountability.

Q: What is the role of parental responsibility? When children end up in care, or drop out of school, those problems start at home.

A: What we’ve got to do is put the power and responsibility in the hands of the communities. And that means in the hands of the families.

Q: Does the current system create a kind of learned helplessness and cynicism among your leaders and educators?

A: I think the cynicism is well earned. It’s about lack of trust. Good words over the course of history without the kind of follow-through and action that’s required. Why do we believe we can break this pattern now? Perhaps it’s because we’re reaching out to Canadians and we don’t feel so alone now in this fight. I hope we’re in the kind of tipping point moment that other movements have experienced, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, the environmental issues. If this is indeed one of those moments, it would be incumbent on the government to recognize that along with us.