OTTAWA - National Chief Shawn Atleo has staked his ground for upcoming talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to improve the quality of life for First Nations, setting a time limit of this spring for concrete action.
The Assembly of First Nations leader returns to Ottawa re-energized after a 10-day sick leave, protests across Canada and a six-week hunger protest by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence that exacerbated schisms within his own organization.
The chiefs within the AFN now have the national chief on a short leash, driving him hard to show that his relationship with Harper is more effective than taking a hard-line approach with Ottawa.
He must now follow up on the controversial but groundbreaking Jan. 11 meetings between chiefs and Harper by nailing down the dates for further conversations to break an impasse between government and First Nations.
In an interview Friday with The Canadian Press, Atleo said he needs to see tangible results from the federal government soon — as does Harper if he wants to proceed with his top priority of advancing natural resource extraction.
"We need to see in a short period of time — I'm talking three to four months — concrete action on efforts that we've been seeking for decades," Atleo said from Vancouver as he was boarding a plane.
"In the next little while we do have, I believe, a greater confluence in shared interests."
Where to start? The Assembly of First Nations presented Harper with a list of eight different priorities on Jan. 11. Then, this week, the AFN signed on to a declaration driven by Spence which listed 13 priorities.
In the interview, Atleo moved some of those to the top of the list.
Particularly key, he said, will be Harper's commitment to empower senior officials to modernize and implement treaties and speed up comprehensive land claims.
First Nations chiefs across the country are angry that the treaties and inherent rights —recognized in the Canadian constitution — have long been ignored by government, leaving aboriginal communities impoverished, uneducated and unable to progress.
"We should be walking together, and we have not been walking together," Atleo said. "We need one another. We need each other. That's what the treaty relationship always said. Socially, politically, culturally, economically.
"We can demonstrate that now — or we face the risk of repeating the patterns of conflict and disconnect that have plagued us for absolutely generations."
While Harper has agreed in principle to put treaty talks and land claims on a fast track, confidential minutes of the Jan. 11 meeting suggest a lack of understanding within the federal cabinet about the importance of the issue to First Nations.
Twice during the meeting, Treasury Board President Tony Clement admitted to "not understanding (the) entire relationship with treaty," say draft minutes written for the AFN executive and obtained by APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Clement is in charge of cost-cutting with the federal government and has recently been given responsibility for the massive Ring of Fire base metals discovery in northern Ontario — a discovery that sits on traditional native lands.
Many chiefs believe the ancient treaties they signed with the Crown were meant to share the land and its spoils, and should be set out in modern language so that First Nations bands have clear rights to funding, revenue from natural resources and the wherewithal to have a standard of living like the rest of Canadians.
Ottawa, however, has preferred to talk about funding, resources and standard of living in isolation.
Atleo said he also wants a rejuvenated effort to reform First Nations education.
"The kids have to be a priority, and it can't be a top-down government-led agenda; I want to be very clear," Atleo said.
"We're going to press very hard for a refocusing of this effort on education so that First Nation voices and First Nation-driven systems is the way forward."
Earlier attempts at reform have advanced only slowly, and the AFN walked away from the process last fall because chiefs were not consulted about how to proceed. Now, the federal government has begun more intensive consultations with natives.
Atleo also has some new proposals to deal with the hundreds of aboriginal women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered over the past few years.
At the Jan. 11 meeting, Harper rejected an AFN pitch to set up a national inquiry. So now, Atleo is proposing an examination of ways to closer co-ordinate with police and authorities, as well as better support families and victims.
While the chiefs' lists of requests are long and potentially very expensive, Harper should be highly motivated to settle their disputes, Atleo said. That's because the government has said frequently that Canada needs $650 billion to invest in natural resources and keep Canada's economy on a roll.
"These projects can really only proceed if First Nations' right to free prior and informed consent is factored in," Atleo said.
"We need good faith. That's what's required in order to unlock economic and human potential."
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