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Only in native politics could securing the Prime Minister’s undivided attention for a day, and hooking hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding at a time of austerity, be considered a sellout. Shawn Atleo, the AFN’s National Chief, persuaded Stephen Harper to attend a Crown-First Nations gathering earlier this year, aimed at making progress toward a goal both men covet — self-sufficient, self-governing native communities.
For his troubles, Mr. Atleo, who is facing a tough re-election fight next week, has been accused of “selling our souls to the devil” by one of his rivals, Pam Palmater.
“There is a sense that if you’re not intransigent and fighting the federal government, then you’re not doing it right,” said Joseph Quesnel, an analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “After the gathering, the whole ‘Atleo sell-out’ narrative started to take shape, which in my view was bizarre and unfortunate.”
Ms. Palmater, an aboriginal lawyer and academic, is one seven candidates running against Mr. Atleo to become National Chief – a line-up that includes an unprecedented four women.
She has accused him of cozying up to the Prime Minister and agreeing to government initiatives like the national panel on native education, without consulting the chiefs he represents. “Atleo has, in a few rogue steps, turned the Assembly of First Nations into the Assimilation of First Nations,” she wrote.
In an interview this week, she said that the “extremely cordial” relations with Mr. Harper have been more harmful than helpful.
The leadership contest in Toronto next week is not only a battle for the soul of the AFN, but in Mr. Atleo’s words a “moment of reckoning” for the whole country.
He said that there has been progress in the last three years – First Nations control of native education has been a goal since the 1970s and now looks within reach. Yet deep inequalities remain with an aboriginal population that is the fastest growing in the country.
“This race is now a real debate about what the AFN stands for,” said Mr. Quesnel.
Mr. Atleo sees himself as a mediator and facilitator, at the table engaging in “nation-to-nation” dialogue on education and revenue resource sharing.
By contrast, most of the other candidates seem to view the role as leadership of a glorified protest movement.
Ms. Palmater said she wants to put an advocate back at the helm of an advocacy organization. Mr. Atleo has been “giving in to the bully,” she said. “It’s not working and we have to stand up for ourselves.” She is calling for a new funding formula that takes account of growing native populations and chronic social problems – essentially, an increase in the transfer payments from Ottawa.
Other candidates like Joan Jack from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba, agree that the AFN needs to be a stronger voice on behalf of the chiefs. “I don’t need a platform – the AFN is not a government, it’s an advocacy organization and should be driven by the chiefs.”
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/07/14/john-ivison-the-fight-for-the-soul-of-the-afn/