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Shawn Atleo is no Obama

There was a time in this country when the only representative TV image Canada had of First Nation people was the war-bonneted Indian on the CBC test pattern.

There was a time in this country when the only representative TV image Canada had of First Nation people was the war-bonneted Indian on the CBC test pattern. There, in black and white, was the stereotypical view: a hook-nosed, stoic warrior in a headdress. That image hung around for years and thankfully these days there are a plethora of more refined images of the people broadcast everyday.

So it was disconcerting to see us portrayed as dullards on a national broadcast by a national chief. When Shawn Atleo sat for a major interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, it should have been an opportunity to present our Canadian neighbours with an image of us as the politically astute, forward-thinking people we have proved ourselves to be. Instead, Canadians got a one-dimensional, nondescript, vacuous portrayal of our leadership and ultimately, us. All that was lacking was the nose and the headdress.

It was culturally embarrassing. Canadians wanting answers and information about the lives and issues of First Nation people got nothing. All they learned was that Atleo had a great set of grandparents. When he mentioned issues at all, he left them lying there as though they were understood and accepted realities. They’re not. Canadians still need to be informed about our day-to-day realities and this was a great opportunity squandered.

He spoke of building relationships, then neglected to say how he was going to do that. He mentioned building a political will to get things accomplished and said nothing about how he would initiate that process. He talked of fortifying the educational process for native youth and again neglected to speak of process. Each issue was laid out and then abandoned.

As a First Nation person I felt abandoned too. This is the man who purports to represent me. This is the man who is supposed to defend my rights and my future as a Treaty Indian in Canada. As my national leader I expected him to use this major interview to set the record straight about conditions, issues, goals and objectives. I expected him to define my political reality for the benefit of my neighbours. He did none of that.

Instead, Canada was offered a forgettable interview with no content. To his credit, Mansbridge attempted to pull him out, challenged him with questions that should have elicited a strong response, actually called for a strong response. But Atleo sat back in his chair and failed to say anything of consequence.

His supporters referred to him as “our Barack Obama” during his election campaign. There was nothing remotely Obama-like in this interview. There was nothing leader-like either. Atleo showed himself to a national audience to be reticent on anything except his familial heritage and although that’s charming, it does nothing to build bridges, open communication or lend credence to native issues.

I expect more of a national chief. I expect more of someone who is the head of an organization that claims to represent some 700 thousand of us. But there, perhaps, is the rub in all of this. There, perhaps, is the reason Atleo could not or would not take the opportunity to enlighten and inform Canadians of native reality.

The Assembly of First Nations does not represent me. In truth, Atleo was elected by the some 640 voting chiefs of First Nations who make up the Assembly of First Nations. So, in truth, he only represents those chiefs. As an everyday Indian I have no voice in the agenda of the AFN. As one of the majority of First Nation people who live off-reserve I am unrepresented except by duly elected members of Parliament, provincial legislatures or municipal leaders. That’s native truth.

To deal rightly with the issues he laid out then abandoned, Atleo would have had to admit this. He would have had to identify the AFN as a lobby group for chiefs, and some truth bears too hard a cost. The AFN gets its money directly from government so it’s necessary to continue the charade of being a national voice of First Nation people. After all, when you’re in the pocket of government it’s best to not be too strident.

Obama would have confronted it. He would have spoken of giving a voice to off-reserve people. He would have spoken of the necessity of changing the mandate and the charter of the AFN to include us. He would have said that a truly representative body would have the courage to face their own truth and lack. He would have allowed Canadians the truth and shown them a reason and a process for change.

Shawn Atelo is no Obama and never will be. He showed himself to be a milquetoast politician at best and he let First Nation people and Canada down by not being prepared to be forthright and clear on issues and process.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from

Doubleday. He can be reached at