07/15/2013 04:05 EDT | Updated 09/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Competing aboriginal meetings hint at schism within First Nations community

OTTAWA - When the Assembly of First Nations holds its annual meeting in Whitehorse this week, a group of rival chiefs will hold their own gathering in Saskatchewan that could give rise to a rival aboriginal organization.

The overlapping schedules of the meetings will force many people to choose between the AFN and the National Treaty Gathering at Onion Lake, Sask.

But more than that, the conflicting schedules point to a schism between aboriginal factions that has only widened since this winter's Idle No More protests.

"These are people in the same house who have different views on what the future looks like," said Ken Coates, an expert on aboriginal issues at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in regional innovation.

Coates, who is in Whitehorse for the AFN meeting, described the main differences of opinion between the two groups.

"You have a group of people who have a different view of how the government relationship with aboriginal people should work, and it's actually a pretty fundamental one," Coates said.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo wants to capitalize on aboriginal rights that have been won through the courts, and focus on economic and social development, he explained.

The treaty group, on the other hand, believes there are many unresolved rights yet to be won and treaty relationships to be asserted.

Some chiefs and First Nations people criticized Atleo for agreeing to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January as the protest movement took centre stage.

A faction of chiefs, including Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, wanted the Harper meeting to take place on their terms and on their turf. They boycotted the meeting and protested in the streets outside the Prime Minister's Office.

One of Atleo's most outspoken critics was Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. He is scheduled to make a presentation in Onion Lake about the proposed splinter group, called the National Treaty Alliance.

"What we're really asking is for people to step outside the box and think outside the box towards what might be possible," Nepinak said in an interview.

"And if the consequence is a rival organization, then so be it."

The focus of that group would be on the many historic treaties between First Nations and the Crown — and specifically, who has the right to speak for those agreements.

Nepinak recently wrote to Atleo saying the AFN lacks the authority to negotiate with the federal government "behind closed doors at high-level tables in Ottawa" on behalf of First Nations in Manitoba.

"The authorities to speak on treaties ... are always nation-to-nation," Nepinak told The Canadian Press.

"The organizations that we have today, they're not nations. At best, they can advocate on behalf of nations if they receive the delegated authority and responsibilities granted to them specifically by the nation."

In an interview, Atleo said he's not trying to negotiate on anyone's behalf.

"Supporting this effort is about kicking open doors or knocking them down. But it's not my role to negotiate," he said.

"It's my role to support and then, as required, get out of the way and allow for that work to proceed."

Nor does Atleo think the AFN should be the only voice for First Nations people.

"Unity is not about having singularity of mind or approach, or about sameness. But it is about standing together and it's about supporting one another," he said.

"It's about recognizing that we might be 52 different languages, but we've all been impacted by an Indian Act and a residential schools system.

"It's recognizing that the AFN, which is there to serve as a vital voice, is going to remain vital and it's going to be an important voice going forward — but not the only voice."

Nepinak sees things somewhat differently.

"This loosely knit unity that we've had under the AFN is really being tested because of the difficulty of the political relationship we have with Canada right now," he said.

"And it's bringing into the light a lot of those limitations in terms of the loosely knit association and unity we have at that level.

"It's not so much Shawn Atleo, it's not so much the chiefs in creating this polarization, it's really about the limitations of the way we've organized ourselves and re-tooling that idea or that concept into something more grounded in who we are."