APTN National News
MONCTON, NB–Saying First Nations were in a life or death struggle, Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo urged chiefs from across the country to back his ambitious, multi-year plan to scrap the Indian Act, the department of Aboriginal affairs and replace them with a First Nation-Crow n agreement “that advances and affirms our rights.”
Atleo needs to get the majority of chiefs to endorse his plan if a planned, historic meeting this fall between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations chiefs is to become a pivotal encounter.
“This gathering would be a meeting between First Nations leaders and the prime minister…We are calling for a focused agenda so that we emerge with a focused plan of action,” said Atleo.
The AFN annual gathering in Moncton, NB, began with a procession lead by the organization’s eagle staff and the pounding of Mi’kmaq drums that reverberate off the cavernous walls and ceilings of the conference room at the Moncton coliseum.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward welcomed the chiefs by describing his province’s efforts in working with First Nations, including beginning negotiations with the federal government to implement Jordan’s Principle, which aims to postpone funding disputes between Ottawa and the provinces whenever a child’s welfare is at stake.
Atleo said he believed First Nations communities were on the cusp of massive, reformative change.
“We are approaching a critical mass of public support to turn the tide, to push the tipping point,” said Atleo. “It is our time as the Indigenous Nations of this land, after all … this is life or death.”
Atleo said the current federal system dealing with First Nations was irreparably broken and totally alienated from grassroots First Nations citizens.
He highlighted the Conservative government’s decision to suddenly change the departmental name of Indian Affairs to Aboriginal Affairs.
“We have the department changing its name, arbitrarily becoming Aboriginal Affairs and our communities left asking what does this mean, what is the impact?” said Atleo. “The results of a unilateral approach are as predictable as they are tragic.”
Atleo acknowledged his calls for scrapping the Indian Act and the department are not new, they been made for years, including by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was created after the 1990 Oka crisis which saw Mohawks from Kanesatake face down police and the Canadian military to protect a burial ground from being turned into a golf course.
“For decades, our Treaty Nations have watched as resources drain from the north to the south with no benefit to our communities,” said Atleo. “Now is the time for Canadians to learn the truth about our peoples, our Treaties and our nation to nation relationship so we can move forward in partnership.”
Atleo has called for replacing the department of Aboriginal Affairs in the past and it dovetails with his pledge to try to scrap the Indian Act. There was some speculation from the floor of the assembly, given the long-term nature of his goals, that Atleo was also preparing his reelection platform.
Atleo also said the federal government needed to provide increased funding for First Nations reserves.
“We have a major funding challenge and we are demanding that the inequity be addressed,” said Atleo. “We are calling for stable sustainable funding that is, at a minimum, equal to the guarantees enjoyed by the provinces.”
The main thrust of Atleo’s speech, however, was to convince chiefs to support his blueprint for radically altering, structurally and politically, the relationship between First Nations and the federal government.
“First Nations are all on a journey advancing their rights, there are different approaches, circumstances and realities,” said Atleo. “But it is a journey with a clear destination. A destination that affirms our rightful place in our lands and territories that cherish our children and creates a better future for them.”
The AFN released a document, broadly outlining the plan, which it said was passed on a number of previous reports released over the past three decades.
“All point to ultimately replacing or phasing out the department of Indian Affairs (Aboriginal Affairs) and establishing new contact points that properly reflect the nation-to-nation relationship and financing arrangements appropriate to a nation-to-nation relationship,” said the document, titled Pursuing First Nation Self-Determination: Realizing our rights and responsibilities.
The document recommends replacing the department of Aboriginal Affairs with two new entities. One would focus on “First Nation-Crown relationship,” and the other would focus on “fair service provision.”
While the actual details of how they would look remain vague, Atleo told reporters a meeting with the prime minister and First Nations leaders would lay the groundwork for this massive shift.