National Chief Atleo calls on Conservative star candidate to retract poverty comments

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is calling on a star Conservative candidate to retract a claim that no Third World poverty exists in Canada.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
-Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is calling on a star Conservative candidate to retract a claim that no Third World poverty exists in Canada.

Chris Alexander, the Ontario Conservative candidate for Ajax-Pickering, said during a March 17 forum on poverty that Canada had wiped out Third World-levels of poverty.

The comment caused a small flurry of controversy during the opening days of the election after they were posted on YouTube, but Alexander stood by his statement.

Atleo said Alexander’s comments reflected an “underlying, deep misunderstanding about the real issues” and he called on the candidate to retract or correct his statement.

“I would invite the candidate to reconsider and retract that,” said Atleo, during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. “Third World conditions do exist in this country.”

Atleo said Alexander’s views on poverty in Canada adds to the difficulty First Nations leaders face in getting the dire reality gripping First Nations communities onto the national agenda during election campaigns.

“That is a problem that we have when prominent individuals suggest that (these issues) don’t exist in Canada. That is what prompts apathy about First Nations, it promotes a lack of understanding,” said Atleo.

Alexander, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, told a poverty forum that Canada had eliminated the $2-a-day level of poverty benchmarked by the World Bank.

“I believe in poverty elimination in this country,” said Alexander. “We’ve eliminated it for the levels the World Bank recognizes. We don’t have that kind of poverty in Canada, we still have low income.”

In an interview with APTN, Alexander said he believes that poverty in some First Nations communities is comparable to what exists in the more poverty-stricken parts of the world. He said the difference was Canada has social programs, while other countries like Afghanistan have no real functioning state.

“Parts of Canada’s population do suffer regrettably from grinding poverty and I have seen that with my own eyes,” said Alexander, who has a cousin working for Indian Affairs. “When we are talking about statistics we need to be careful, we need to be careful about how we describe the phenomena…We can debate what is Third World and what is not, I was talking about the World Bank definition of poverty and the Canadian definition of poverty. Too many of our First Nations communities face poverty…and the issue should be taken seriously.”

Alexander said some of his “best friends” were from First Nations communities.

He said his comments at the poverty forum were taken out of context by the Liberal Party, which he said executed a near-slanderous attack against him.

Atleo said he has travelled to poverty-stricken places around the world and he did not see much difference between a child hauling water with a bucket in Africa and a child doing the same in a northern First Nations community.

Atleo said Alexander’s comments were just as harmful as those of Quebec Liberal candidate Andre Forbes who called First Nations people “featherheads.”

The Liberals have tried to force Forbes from their banner, but election rules do not allow the party to strike a candidate from the ballot at this point.

“What is frustrating is that so often we talk about this amongst ourselves as Indigenous people,” said Atleo. “During this campaign maybe we have a chance to challenge (candidates like) Chris Alexander and Andre Forbes to actually visit these communities, spend time with our people, so there can be some accuracy and recognition that there needs to be some real action on these issues.”

Forbes told APTN he would not have made the comment if he had the opportunity to go back in time.

Atleo also told reporters the AFN was exploring avenues to find other sources of revenues to replace federal government funding. Atleo acknowledged that an independently funded AFN would be able to more fully meet its mandate.

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