01/23/2012 12:50 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT

First Nations Economies Need 'Urgent' Action, Atleo Says


Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo says an "ambitious" approach is needed to tackle the issues facing Canada's aboriginal people.

"I think we can actually be both practical and ambitious. And in fact, I think we must be ambitious," Atleo told CBC's chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge ahead of Tuesday's Crown-First Nations meeting in Ottawa.

Atleo said First Nations communities face many pressing issues, and called for a "bold agenda" in areas like education.

"Our graduation rates still languish below 50 per cent," he said Monday. "We know we can and must do a lot better than that. So this is really about the future potential of our people, especially our young people – and indeed, the future of Canada."

The AFN met in Ottawa on Monday to discuss its priorities for Tuesday's summit with Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and high-ranking cabinet ministers and federal officials.

A group of 33 chiefs, including many regional representatives, met with Harper on Monday. Atleo said the meeting provided an opportunity for representatives from different regions to talk about the "diverse needs and differences" between regions.

Roughly 700 delegates have registered for the upcoming assembly, Atleo said.

"There's such a thirst amongst our people for real change," he said.

The AFN national chief also called for a change in the nature of relationships between First Nations and the government.

"Smashing the status quo includes changing from the unilateral experiences of Ottawa-centric decision making to a real full partnership that this country was actually founded on in the treaty relationship."

First Nations economies need 'urgent' action

Earlier in the day, Atleo said boosting the economies of native communities is also high on his list of priorities.

"We would seek a commitment on the Crown to work with us to pursue a different way for First Nations to fully participate in sustainable development across our respective territories," Atleo told CBC News.

"It is happening in the area of natural resources, in the area of the green economy. We have a burgeoning group of entrepreneurs. We have more post-secondary graduates than we've ever had in our history. But we are at risk, though, of losing a generation … if we don’t move in an urgent fashion now," Atleo said.

Education issues and the housing crises on reserves, such as Attawapiskat, are expected to be a part of the discussions Tuesday, but there is some disagreement among First Nations chiefs about what the priorities should be.

There are fears that having the federal government set the agenda may leave little room for the chiefs' concerns to be heard, George Stanley, AFN regional chief for Alberta, told CBC News on Sunday.

Stanley said he hoped the gathering doesn't simply become a photo opportunity for the federal government, a point echoed by the NDP on Monday.

"I'm hearing loud and clear what the chiefs are saying: 'It better be more than a photo op for the prime minister,'" NDP aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan said Monday.

"I'm hearing already some concern that the agenda is too much set by the prime minister's cabinet and not enough accommodating what the First Nations are calling for."

Harper to leave midday

Harper will address the gathering Tuesday, and is expected to attend much of the morning meeting before leaving for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Chief Gregory Peters of the Delaware Nation told CBC News that Harper's presence is welcome, but said Harper's early departure is disappointing.

"I think it's a historic event that the prime minister agreed to sit down with First Nations," he said Monday.

"I'm just a little disappointed that we've learned that he's not going to be there for the full day. When we're starting on this journey of a new relationship together, I think it [is] crucial that we would take precedence."

NDP MP Charlie Angus said Canadians are expecting a new deal with First Nations and said conditions seen in the northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat are just the tip of the iceberg.

"I think Mr. Harper needs to recognize the historical implications at this time to try and find a long-term solution for the numerous issues that are plaguing our relationship with First Nations in Canada," said Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat.

'Third World conditions'

Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak told CBC News that one such long-term solution is sharing the wealth.

"There is $3 billion [coming] out of northern Manitoba every year [from resources]. If we were to share a percentage of that, we wouldn't have to live in Third World conditions in Canada," he said Monday.

He said that there are many more communities like Attawapiskat, including some in his own region, that do not have running water.

"[Canada] is the sixth place in the United Nations index, and yet — no running water," he said.

"Somebody this morning had to go use a toilet outside at minus 30 degrees, and yet [it is] only now that we're talking to the prime minister."

"If more cuts are going to come, you're going to see hundreds more Attawapiskats."

Call for open dialogue

Despite some disagreement about priorities, the Assembly of First Nations is united in pursuing continued dialogue with the federal government. There is an overwhelming consensus within the AFN that this gathering should become an annual one, and that it should also include the premiers.

Atleo said there is a call for Tuesday's summit not to be "just a one-time meeting" and said he wants to see an "ongoing process of meaningful engagement with the Crown."

Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians told CBC News that the meeting will not resolve all the First Nations problems in one fell swoop, but it's an important first step toward opening dialogue with the government.

"There are a number of issues that are plaguing First Nations communities, and we definitely know that this meeting tomorrow isn't going to address all those issues," she said Monday.

"I think what we need to look at is long term, not only for this government but for any subsequent government, in building a strong relationship where we can move forward."