Counting on Conservatives Backfired for Atleo, Say Critics

National Chief, hoping to be re-elected today, faces rift over how to deal with Harper government.

By Adam Pez 18 Jul 2012 |

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Too co-operative? National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, hereditary chief in the B.C. First Nation of Ahousaht, is the incumbent facing re-election at the Assembly of First Nations.

Chiefs from across the country will vote today to decide who will get to speak on behalf of Canadian First Nations in an election that's rapidly become a referendum on what approach First Nations want to take at the negotiating table.

The current incumbent, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, has received strong criticism from groups who say his soft spoken, suit-and-tie approach to negotiating with the federal government and provinces hasn't produced results on treaty issues, self-governance rights and pipelines. And their numbers include experts on aboriginal self-governance, who say Atleo's approach is leading First Nations down the road to assimilation.

"It's one thing to take the moderate approach if it works," but it adds "fuel to the fire" if it doesn't, says Taiaiaike Alfred, a professor with the University of Victoria's program for aboriginal governance.

Atleo, current national chief and hereditary chief in the B.C. First Nation of Ahousaht, is the incumbent facing re-election at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). His fate will be decided after 633 chiefs from across the country cast votes later today until one candidate gains a 60 per cent plus majority.

'Assimilationist' accusations

So far the race has been heated.

In early June, Atleo was branded an "assimilationist" by critics who say he hasn't spoken up strongly enough on aboriginal treaty and resource rights, according to APTN National News.

The accusation was first made by Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox, the chief who nominated Atleo to the floor to kick off his successful 2009 leadership bid.

That criticism has lead Atleo supporters to call for an end to "wrecking ball rhetoric" before it fractures a united aboriginal front at the bargaining table.

But Alfred says that criticism of Atleo is "dead on," and it's the shared opinion of several of the seven other leadership candidates currently vying for Atleo's position. He said that reflects widespread discontent amongst First Nations with Atleo's approach.

"They felt his approach, that is very, very soft spoken and moderate in tone -- a not wanting to upset the apple cart sort of approach -- was just not paying off in any sort of way," said Alfred.

He said the national chief's close relationship with the federal Conservatives hasn't spared aboriginal groups the axe during recent federal cutbacks. His cautious approach has helped create a false impression that aboriginals are content with the status quo, added Alfred.

Federal cuts go deep

Earlier this year, the federal government announced it would extend new funding for some aboriginal programs -- including $175 million to help build and renovate aboriginal schools. In a recent public statement, Atleo said the new funding "leaves some room for hope."

But those fresh funds fall well short of what's needed, according to an AFN release, and they have also been accompanied by roughly $250 million in cuts to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to be administered over the next four years, according to the Globe and Mail.

Those cuts included the decision to slash funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization and The National Centre for First Nations Governance, self-described as the only organization in Canada working exclusively on First Nations governance.

Both groups are expected to shut down.

"First Nations people felt in a very serious way that (Atleo) was tied to (the cuts) because he was linked to the Conservatives on a number of issues -- they had a cooperative working relationship," said Alfred. "When the cuts came down, he was associated with the Harper government, fairly and unfairly."

Now, he said, the leadership vote comes down to whether chiefs will elect a "more contentious person" who'll strike a more "confrontational" rights-based approach at the bargaining table. Or, he added, whether they will "go with the sure thing -- the safe approach of Atleo: let's work with the government no matter how abhorrent it is to the idea of indigenous nationhood."

Atleo's advantages

Still, despite the anger, it's unclear if it will translate into enough votes to stop Atleo's re-election bid, said Jacqueline Romanow-Bear, a faculty member at the University of Winnipeg's Aboriginal Governance Program.

She noted, despite the heated rhetoric, Atleo still has strong support in B.C. -- which punches above its weight among AFN delegates -- and he's quietly shoring up his support in Ontario. He's also an experienced politician -- in comparison to his opponents -- which gives him a big advantage after the first round of votes have been cast and the number of candidates has been winnowed down.

"As far as the second round is concerned, it's pretty open. It's going to come down to backroom deals and politics," said Romanow-Bear.

She said, however, that she can understand the frustration with Atleo's approach.

"Atleo was able to ensure some funding increases from the Harper government, but it doesn't seem like enough. It doesn't seem like your concerns are being represented at the 'grassroots level,' " she said, noting longstanding problems like aboriginal poverty, insufficient housing, poor water and waste infrastructure, and continued under-performance in education versus the general public for Canadian aboriginals.

She said the AFN is itself hampered by problem.

The organization has too many delegates -- 633 chiefs in total -- which complicates votes, she said. Also, regions get disproportional representation, with B.C. getting much more proportionally than the prairies -- whose chiefs have been upset with Atleo's lack of talk on self-government and resource rights, she said.

She also noted the AFN leadership votes are cast by chiefs, not First Nations people, raising issues of representation and democracy, she said.

Most concerning, however, is the dependence of the AFN on the federal government for funds, which puts constrains on what Atleo can say or do, she said.

"I would be very nervous, because (Harper's) shown no hesitation of cutting funding to groups that've stood up against him," she said, noting federal scientists working for the Ministry of the Environment as an example.

"When you're working closely with the government there are certain things you can achieve. What you can't do really, is you can't effectively voice the concerns of people at the community level who are unhappy with the status quo. The conditions on the reserve for many people at the community level are very difficult."

She said the AFN leadership race has at least helped bring some of those issues to light.

Atleo "has engaged with social media throughout this campaign, so I think he's learned a lot," she said, adding, however, that the "biggest lessons" won't ultimately emerge until after the final vote has been cast.  [Tyee]

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