Atleo pushing First Nations down "assimilation" road, says former backer

The Saskatchewan chief who formally nominated Shawn Atleo as a candidate in 2009 says the incumbent national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is heading down a path toward “assimilation.”

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Saskatchewan chief who formally nominated Shawn Atleo as a candidate in 2009 says the incumbent national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is heading down a path toward “assimilation.”

Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox says Atleo has chosen to push the agenda of the Conservative government over the interests of chiefs, particularly from treaty areas.

Fox says he is backing former Roseau River chief Terrance Nelson in this year’s election for national chief because a vote for Atleo would lead to a further erosion of treaty rights.

“If we keep the status-quo and we keep the same national chief, with the experience of what has happened in the last three years, we will continue walking down the same path of the federal government’s agenda to do away with our rights as First Nations people,” said Fox. “I don’t want to be part of that organization with this chief at the helm.”

Fox was the one who nominated Atleo from the floor during the introduction of AFN national chief candidates in 2009.

Fox says he backed Atleo then believing he was the right choice to push treaty issues on the national stage.

“Unfortunately that did not happen,” said Fox. “What is happening is that the 1969 White Paper is alive and well again. It’s all being done piecemeal and the AFN leadership is endorsing that…it is all part of assimilation of First Nations people into mainstream society and to do away with the Indian problem.”

In 1969, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his Indian affairs minister Jean Chretien introduced the White Paper which recommended doing away with the Indian Act and erasing the distinct status of First Nations people.

Aside from Nelson, Atleo is also facing challenges from two AFN vice-chiefs including George Stanley, from Frog Lake First Nation, and Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, from the Northwest Territories.

Four women are also vying for the job of national chief and they include: Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk from Kanesatake who rose to prominence as a spokesperson during the Oka crisis, Joan Jack, an Ojibway lawyer from the Berens River First Nation, former Treaty 3 grand chief Diane Kelly, a lawyer from Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation, and Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor at Ryerson university.

The vote is scheduled for July 18 in Toronto. Only chiefs can vote in the election.

Onion Lake has become one of the most prosperous First Nations in the country by capitalizing on oil and gas projects in its territory. It is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada and operates several companies involved in the energy sector.

Onion Lake recently formed an energy alliance through two treaties with four other communities, including one from the U.S. One of the treaties was signed with the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation from Utah, and the other with three Alberta First Nations including Sucker Creek First Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation and Drift Pile First Nation. The Cree community also plans to construct a Treaty 6 embassy.

Fox recently hosted Noureddine Amir, the United Nations co-chair of the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination.

“The national organization (AFN) never assisted us in any shape or form,” said Fox. “We have been doing this on our own through trial and error, through over 35 years of development.”

Fox said it still bothers him that Atleo ignored the Saskatchewan chiefs’ rejection of the education panel struck by the AFN and Aboriginal Affairs. He said Ottawa’s push to streamline First Nations education with the provinces flies in the face of the treaties which he believes guaranteed First Nation control over education.

“We never entered into treaties with the provinces, but now, with the (proposed) Education Act…we have to work with provinces under their jurisdiction,” said Fox. “There are many things like that with the AFN. Maybe they don’t understand we don’t want to be part of that system.”

Fox said he still wants Canada to honour the treaties, which guaranteed education and health for First Nations. He said under the treaties, First Nations still retained subsurface rights to their territories.

“The treaties that were entered into, our ancestors, with the Europeans that came across the water were to share the land, cohabitate. The resources were always to be maintained within our people,” said Fox. “From that time, the governments have been benefiting from the resources of the land that we never ceded under treaty.”

Fox said he’s backing Nelson because the former Ojibway chief has a plan to leverage investment from foreign sources. Fox said he agrees with Nelson that the only way for First Nations to break out of the cycle of poverty is to generate own-source revenue.

“(Nelson) is very assertive, very outspoken and very treaty-minded,” said Fox. “We need a strong voice in that area, not one to basically do what he is told by the government.”

Atleo was not available for comment, but his campaign issued an emailed statement.

“(Atleo’s) record, his principled approach and his integrity speak for themselves. We encourage everyone to read the facts for themselves,” said the statement. “(Atleo) has increased the profile of issues, opened doors to First Nations to drive change and encourage us all to come together. This is a true vision, grounded in experience and skill for the advancement of our rights and cultures.”

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