National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo spoke to a packed house of Yukon aboriginal leaders for half an hour Tuesday morning, and didn’t once mention the word ‘healing.’
The omission was notable.
Atleo sold himself as a spokesman for a generational shift in First Nation history, a man who thinks today’s young leaders can put the suffering of the past behind them.
“The discussions I had this morning are about young people who are emerging into positions of leadership in the Yukon and who have no memory within themselves of interacting with the Indian Act,” he told the hundred or so people gathered in the High Country Inn convention centre.
“What I would suggest is a reemerging confidence in who we are as indigenous people – to stand up on our own,” he said.
“I arrive here with feelings of hope and optimism.”
Atleo, 42, put education front and centre in his address, suggesting an overhaul of federal-aboriginal relations must take place for First Nations to get their fair shake in Canadian society.
“The administration of the Indian Act is the most bureaucratic and dictatorial system ever imposed in this world of ours,” he said, quoting Andy Paull, who formed the North American Indian Brotherhood, the Assembly of First Nation’s predecessor.
“We know you’re still under the impact of the Indian Act and the existence of the ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs.”
Atleo wants to do away with the Indian Act within five years, and on Tuesday he resurrected the idea of abolishing Indian and Northern Affairs. Instead, a new ministry with the stated aim of implementing self-government agreements, called the Ministry of Crown-First Nation Relations, should take its place, he said.
The proposition received enthusiastic applause.
But he wants to prep the ground for such radical change first. The assembly represents chiefs, who have their power entrenched by the Indian Act. And the federal government has made no overtures regarding reforming Indian and Northern Affairs.
Atleo wants to follow US President Barack Obama’s lead. He met with 500 tribal leaders in Washington last November to renew US-aboriginal relations in that country.
The assembly is lobbying Ottawa for a major First Nation-Crown gathering, said Atleo.
“We want to open doors, and take them down when necessary, and then maybe get out of the way,” he said.
The assembly is hosting a national action week on education in Ottawa later this month to get federal politicians’ attention.
“It’s not well-known that First Nations are the only group in this country that don’t have a statutory guarantee (for education),” he said.
Currently, there is a $2-billion shortfall for education services in First Nation communities, he said.
“We can build water systems in Africa and school systems in Guatemala,” he said. “We need 60 schools in First Nations right now in this country and it’s time we responded to those needs.”
Fostering more education will help First Nations, Canada’s fastest growing ethnic group, replace the country’s aging workforce, he said.
“What if we closed the education and economic achievement gap? It would be a $72-billion injection into Canada’s GDP,” he said to a roomful of applause. “That’s a serious investment.”
Aside from focusing on education, Atleo reached out to Yukon First Nations that are still negotiating for the implementation of their judicial system.
He supports aboriginals resurrecting ancient legal traditions in order to strengthen communities.
In his hometown of Ahousaht, British Columbia, local leaders have threatened alcohol and drug abusers with banishment, the way it used to be done.
Back in the day, the people who were the most violent or destructive were brought out into the ocean and left in a boat without a paddle.
“Leaving, in essence, the judgement up to the Creator,” he said after his speech.
“We don’t have any self-government agreements. What we are doing is acting in our authority.”
Justice for women and children is also important to Atleo. He has called for an inquiry into the murders of women in Vancouver’s
Eastside, many of them aboriginal. During his speech, he also brought attention to a young girl in his community who suffered from an undefined form of abuse.
Locally, Little Salmon/Carmacks Chief Eddie Skookum was convicted of reckless endangerment in Juneau, Alaska, last week after fighting with his girlfriend in a Haines hotel. He was originally charged with assault. He has remained chief throughout the ordeal.
Atleo wouldn’t go so far as suggest Skookum should be shunned.
“I think it’s up to the community to design the response and approach that works for them,” he said.
“I don’t know anything about this situation, so I can’t comment on the specifics,” he said. “But I will only suggest that First Nation approaches need to be recognized and supported.”
“Because in many ways I feel the mainstream system is not only not serving us, but further injuring our long-term prospects to return to balance.”
He is aware of people who have criticized a pluralistic system of justice in the past. Current minister of Indian and Northern Affairs John Duncan has bashed rules based on racial lines, the Toronto Star recently reported.
“I understand the mainstream thoughts on one-rule-for-all, but that’s not our reality,” said Atleo.
“We have 13 different federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions, plus hundreds of municipal jurisdictions and over 600 First Nation jurisdictions,” he said. “We’ve got pluralism in our society. We’ve got pluralism in the justice system.”
“We’ve got section 35 of the constitution recognizing treaty and aboriginal rights; we’ve got the (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), that recognizes our ability to implement our justice systems, and now we’ve got other things like self-government agreements,” he said.
Atleo declared his support for four First Nations that are currently in negotiation with the Yukon government over the fate of the 68,000-square-kilometre Peel Watershed. The First Nations want 100 per cent protection for the Peel from industrial development.
“No question about it,” said Atleo, asked whether he would support them if they asked for his help.
“I support the United Nations declaration, which I suggest as a minimum,” he said. “It talks about First Nations having free, prior and informed consent before anything happens in their territories.”
He had only heard about the Peel in passing and didn’t know if the assembly had received any formal request for support, he said.
Atleo ended his speech by calling for inclusiveness between First Nations and other Canadians.
“We reach out to Yukoners; we reach out to Canadians,” he said.
“The education system here in Canada has not supported understanding who First Nations people are,” he said.
“It isn’t people’s fault that they don’t understand,” he said. “It hasn’t been taught.
“It’s time here in this country that every single learner understands who First Nations are, and understands their obligations to walk together with First Nations in this country.”
Contact James Munson at