At the tipping point

By Katherine Gordon, January 2012

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Ah-in-chut Atleo thinks the situation at Attawapiskat is one of many signs Canada is at a tipping point in its relationship with First Nations. The system has failed, says Atleo: it’s time to “smash the status quo” and start over again.


National Chief Ah-in-chut Atleo was speaking at a philanthropy conference in Toronto last October when stark images of families in Attawapiskat, Ontario, living in uninsulated tents without power or running water, started flashing across Canadian television screens. 

As Canadians learned that dozens of reserves across the country share Attawapiskat’s Third World conditions, Atleo told conference delegates that Canada is at a moment of reckoning in its relations with First Nations. “Since contact between European settlers and indigenous peoples in Canada,” said Atleo, “there has been a constant and aggressive erosion of First Nations economies, laws and ways of life. Statistics tell a tragic tale of communities with the highest youth suicide rate in the world, a rate of TB infection 30 times the national average, an education gap that will take over two decades to close and the reality that our children are more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school. This is completely wrong,” raged Atleo. 

Three months earlier, now-retired federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser had unleashed a scathing report on the state of First Nations communities in Canada, lashing out at the federal government for the appalling conditions on many Indian reserves. Canada had failed to implement numerous recommendations she had made over the years on ways to improve the lives and well-being of people living in First Nations communities in any way that had led to significant change. If anything, reported Fraser, conditions were worse. 

Unless the federal government works with First Nations to rise to this challenge, concluded Fraser sombrely, “living conditions may continue to be poorer on First Nations reserves than elsewhere in Canada for generations to come.”

Atleo agrees wholeheartedly. He believes it’s time for bold action: “We’re at a tipping point. We have to unlock the full potential of First Nations, and sever the shackles of the Indian Act. The current system is failing,” he says unequivocally. “It’s time to smash the status quo.”


Fighting for the children

On a blustery west coast day in December, I spoke to Atleo by telephone from Ottawa. Atleo, 47, is from Ahousaht in Nuu-chah-nuulth territory on Vancouver Island. He sighed wistfully when I described the slashing rain and wind outside. Moving to Ottawa in July 2009 to undertake his three-year term as National Chief meant leaving behind his beloved West Coast. Except for fleeting visits with his wife Nancy to see their two children, Tara, 23, who will graduate from Vancouver Island University next month, and Tyson, 25, the youngest councillor ever elected to Ahousaht Council, Atleo is rarely home these days. 

But Atleo couldn’t turn the opportunity down. He was also tailor-made for the position. Atleo had already served two terms as the AFN’s Regional Chief in BC. With an M.Ed in Adult Learning and Global Change from Sydney’s University of Technology in Australia, accounting and financial qualifications from California’s Stanford University, and extensive experience in treaty negotiations and human resource issues in Canada, Atleo is also no slouch on First Nations policy issues. An articulate, pleasant and diplomatic man, he is universally well-regarded in non-First Nations circles, and was invited to be Vancouver Island University’s Chancellor in 2009, the first indigenous individual in the province to attain such a position.

He is also not afraid to call a spade a spade. In a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail, Atleo bluntly stated: “Our collective failure to address the long and lamentable list of challenges affecting First Nations means First Nations lurch from crisis to crisis with governments’ responses motivated, to paraphrase Canada’s former auditor-general, more by headlines than by actually achieving change.”

Atleo doesn’t mince words in person, either. Of working with the federal government, he says: “Sometimes it feels like pushing sand uphill. But this is a fight for our children,” he continues passionately. “We can’t afford to lose another generation.” 


A fundamental transformation

Atleo has a novel but simple plan to change the status quo: hitting “the reset button” on the relationship between Canada and First Nations. “It’s critical, as the former Auditor-General pointed out, that the federal government makes a significant shift in how we work together. It’s time for it to stop imposing solutions on First Nations, go back to original principles and start working with us as real partners.”

When Atleo talks about hitting the reset button, he means it quite literally. “We should return to the beginning, to the kind of relationship between First Nations and the Crown that was forged in the earliest days of Canada, in the treaties that were struck when Canada was first settled,” he says. The spirit and intent of those treaties have never been properly implemented: if they had been, things would look very different today.

When Canada was formed as a country, explains Atleo, First Nations were, of course, already here. They had aboriginal rights and title in their territories, and where treaties were struck, rights under those agreements. Those treaty rights were reciprocal rights in a two-way partnership between equals, and that was how First Nations interpreted them. “If you want an example of that, you just have to look at the War of 1812 in which First Nations fought shoulder to shoulder with Canadians. We were allies in a treaty relationship with Canada. We were all treaty people—the people of Canada had signed up to those treaties just as much as First Nations people had, so we fought together to protect all of our rights.”

In other words, treaty rights were always intended to be a two-way street, a sharing of the wealth of the land and its resources and providing mutual support for rights, culture and heritage. “It’s clear from the historical record that the intent of the treaties was that First Nations would always be full participants in designing a future for Canada together with the Crown.” 

But it hasn’t been that way since. The concept’s been forgotten, says Atleo, or worse, willfully hidden by governments. Instead, a history has prevailed of ignoring First Nations’ inherent rights and unilateral control of their lives by governments. Far from working with First Nations as partners, governments step over their treaty and aboriginal rights as if they weren’t there. 

“That has led to a 100-year-old Indian Act that no one likes and no one can figure out how to get rid of, to endless conflict, and ultimately to the soul-destroying situation you see on reserves like Attawapiskat. It’s all based on ‘Ottawa knows best.’ It doesn’t make anything better. As the Auditor General pointed out, it’s made things worse. Unilateral decision-making and imposed solutions don’t work and never have.”

Things are no better in BC. “Here, the land question remains a burning issue to resolve, but it needs to be done from a place that recognizes that First Nations have rights, and those rights must be reconciled.” As things stand, however, treaty offers are dictated by government policy developed behind closed doors, and there is little appetite on the part of government to recognize aboriginal rights.

“That’s why you see Hulq’umin’um being forced to go to the Inter-America Commission to hear their land claim. Where else do they go if the federal government is acting as both judge and jury in their territory on these issues?” The fact that the IAC decision will not bind Canada, or whether Hulq’umin’um will succeed in its claim, are almost irrelevant at this point: “I think the fact that the IAC even agreed that the case should be heard suggests there is something that desperately needs to be addressed here.”


Will Atleo’s plan make any difference?

It certainly sounds like it’s worth a shot. After all, as Atleo points out, the paternalistic structure of the Indian Act isn’t serving First Nations well and the federal bureaucracy required to implement it is costing the Canadian taxpayer billions in operational expenses. No-one’s happy about the impoverished state of First Nations’ social, cultural and economic well-being. 

But calls for change are nothing new. The records documenting failed efforts to shift the relationship over the last three decades litter the filing cabinets of government departments. Attempts to scrap the Indian Act, including Atleo’s own call for its elimination, haven’t got anywhere so far, and a year after Canada finally signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there has been no substantive shift in government policy to reflect its provisions. 

In BC the treaty process, touted as the way to a better future, is on shaky ground. Many First Nations have given up on the process. Vancouver Island’s Hulq’umin’um Treaty Group has resorted to taking its land claims to the Inter-America Commission to seek justice (see Briony Penn’s story “Pensions on Trial” in the November 2011 issue of Focus) and last October Sophie Pierre, Chief Commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission, introduced the Commission’s 2011 Annual Report by stating that unless there is significant progress by the time the twentieth anniversary of the process rolls around in September 2012, it’s game over. 

So what’s different about what Atleo has in mind—and will his approach make any difference to communities like Attawapiskat? 

Lorne Brownsey, who divides his time these days between Victoria, Hornby Island and Mexico, retired from his post as provincial deputy minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation in January 2011. Prior to that, he was the federal government’s executive director of its Vancouver Treaty Negotiation Office. Brownsey is unequivocal in his views about Atleo’s approach: “National Chief Shawn Ah-in-chut Atleo has identified the only path to reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of Canada.”

Like Atleo, Brownsey believes that prosperity comes from a place of partnership. “That will never be achieved through endless disputes about who has what rights where. Governments and citizens must recognize existing treaty and aboriginal rights and move forward to conclude arrangements on how these rights, and responsibilities, can be given contemporary context.”

Atleo has no doubt that the approach he passionately believes in will make a difference. “The old unilateral system has proved itself to be unworkable. But where you have shared vision and reconciliation,” he says firmly, “and agreements that recognize rights and support them, you empower health, well-being, good governance and independence. You don’t see terrible poverty and hear arguments about accountability. That’s how it used to be in First Nations. It can be again.” 

Atleo also points out that it is not just the economic and cultural health of communities like Attawapiskat, but of all of Canada, that requires a new approach to reconciliation with First Nations. “First Nations are the youngest, fastest-growing population at a time when the Canadian labour force is aging. Studies show that closing the education and employment gaps for our people would contribute as much as $400 billion to the national economy, and save at least $115 billion in government expenditures. It can be done, but it has to be done with First Nations at the table sharing the decision-making on how to get there.”


We are all treaty people

Atleo is optimistic about the potential for significant movement on the part of the federal government. A Joint Action Plan announced in June last year, covering governance, education, economic development and negotiations, resulted from intensive discussions between Atleo and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The agenda for the first meeting under the Joint Action Plan, scheduled for January 24, is focused on what action is required to put the relationship back on its original foundation. 

“We need to scrap the old policies, and jointly design a framework that will work for all of the parties. The prime minister will be there, and that’s appropriate. This discussion has to start at the top.” 

Lorne Brownsey agrees: “As the National Chief and many others have rightly noted, we can’t afford the social, moral or economic cost of not meeting this challenge.” As a former insider, he is more sceptical than Atleo about the federal government’s willingness to embrace the concept: “Unfortunately, the government of Canada has become an increasingly reluctant partner in the process of reconciliation in British Columbia and elsewhere. Hopefully, the January meeting signals its willingness to step up to the table and help re-energize or, as the National Chief puts it, reset a relationship of mutual prosperity.” 

Atleo remains confident, despite the scepticism. “We need to understand that if we can reach agreement on this issue,” he reiterates, “that will benefit every Canadian, not just First Nations. After all,” he reminds us, “we’re all treaty people.”

Accepting the latter concept, says Atleo, is fundamentally important to improving the relationship between First Nations individuals and other Canadians. “I think if we start to understand that we are all treaty people in Canada—every one of us, even the newest immigrant—that will shift us to the place we need to be. We’re all partners, and we all benefit when every First Nation is as prosperous as every other Canadian community. The path to that is joint action to support our rights and well-being. That’s where the understanding needs to be,” he says.

“I believe there is a shift occurring,” he adds. “I read one report indicating millions of Canadians can trace their heritage to the indigenous peoples of North America. Those stories often used to be left in the family woodshed, but now they’re coming out again. That suggests to me people are growing closer to each other again and are starting to be proud of Canada’s First Nations’ heritage,” he says happily. “It also tells me Canadians are embracing the concept that we’re all here to stay.”


We need to move boldly 

For Atleo, in the end the most important thing is making life better for the children and desperate communities he sees almost every day in his job. “The children in our communities have been getting the message for too long that people don’t care about them,” he says. “I know there is fear about taking bold steps like this. I acknowledge that fear. But we need to move boldly. We need to tell the children we do care, by our actions, and we need to do it together,” he says.

“That way we can not only stem the tide of despair and suicide but unleash the potential of these young people. Imagine what that would be like for Canada. That’s the hope I have. That’s what’s driving me.”


A former lands claims negotiator, Katherine Gordon is a Gabriola Island resident. Her upcoming sixth book explores the connections between culture and self through the stories of young Aboriginal Canadians who discuss their lives as British Columbians of First Nations heritage.