06/24/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 08/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Changemaker: Chief Shawn Atleo's Lessons in Leadership

Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, check in with some of their favourite actors, authors, singers and activists to find out how they are changing the world.

Last year we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a historic meeting between a Canadian Aboriginal leader and a Maasai tribal chief.

Out on the Kenyan savannah, we listened in as Shawn A-in-chut Atleo -- there to visit our development projects -- found common ground with a chief from half a world away. In a single day, we learned more about Canada's Aboriginal peoples and the challenges they face than we had in all our years of school.

A lifelong Aboriginal activist, Atleo is the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia, and is serving his second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He is also a guiding light for Free The Children's annual We Stand Together campaign that brings together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in a shared learning experience.

We talked to Atleo about the importance of education, the qualities of a good leader, and the bond he shares with that Maasai leader.


On any given day, we know that education for girls, world hunger and global warming are some of the biggest issues facing our time. What's the biggest issue to you?

I would say education, especially for the young. That doesn't mean just acquiring Western, world-class education and skill to become human capital in the global economy, but rather to become actors in a more civil society. A large part of the heritage I come from is that idea of citizenship, and education is the spark that will light the fire of potential in each individual.

Many look to you as a role model; who is your hero?

My late grandmother really stands out as being the epitome of resilience among my people -- raised 17 kids, outlived three husbands, and said to me as she was nearing the end of her life: "No fighter fights with their fists anymore. A fighter fights with education, grandson."

What was the greatest lesson you learned from her?

My grandmother really emphasized the idea of truly caring for one another, including those who may speak negatively. In our language we have a phrase that says everyone is connected. All people are one and should be respected. So if you behave that way, then you treat everyone with respect and you care for everyone.

We believe in living me to we: making choices that positively impact the world, instead of just ourselves. Describe the moment you decided you wanted to give back.

There was really an awakening for me in my late teens and early 20s, because I became much more aware of the realities our people are facing: Why do we have suicides at five, six times the national average? Why did we have unemployment rates -- in my village when I was a child -- that ran 85 to 95 per cent? And why did I lose friends and relatives to untimely deaths in their teens? And as I became more aware and conscious, I remember it became utterly apparent that there was a major change that was required and I absolutely and immediately devoted all my efforts and energies into encouraging and supporting this change.

As a leader, what do you believe are the most important qualities of leadership?

Listening. Listening with an open heart and open mind. Listening for understanding. There is a wide diversity of voices that must be listened to, heard and understood. They're not always going to be in line with your own thinking, but it's important to be open to a diversity of ideas.

Leaders need to make a stand with courage and integrity. It's not necessary to bring what is current or popular, but about doing what you believe to be right in your heart and in your mind. And be open to correction; be open to recognizing that different moments call for different kinds of leadership. As Ghandi said, "There go my people, I must follow them."

Do you see similarities between the issues and challenges facing the Maasai, and those facing Canadian Aboriginal Peoples?

I think as people we gravitate quickly to the commonalities, of which there are so many. There was the beauty of coming from a tribal people who have deep links to the land.

The recent history of coming from a traditional form of government in my village, with our ancient customs that have been threatened by external forces. So too the Maasai have faced very recent and fairly steady outside influences. So we see in one another a resilience as Indigenous peoples. We want to retain the very best of who we are and what our heritage is.

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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