TORONTO — Incumbent Shawn Atleo has been re-elected as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, vowing to assert his people’s rights in Ottawa and at the mines, hydro projects and oilfields that neighbour aboriginal communities across the country.
“We will take our rightful place in our respective territories,” Atleo told an assembly hall packed with chiefs after three rounds of voting.
“We will stand together and put the final stake in colonialism,” he said. “We will reject government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights.”
His words were assertive, but an Atleo victory is also a sign of broad support among chiefs for working with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the joint plan that the national chief spent much of his previous term crafting.
Just over a year ago, Harper and Atleo agreed to a process that created an education task force and culminated in a summit last winter with the prime minister, his cabinet ministers and the chiefs.
There, Harper committed to passing legislation that would give First Nations more control over schooling, and to working with natives on comprehensive land claims and treaties -— commitments he has yet to make good on.
Atleo’s conciliatory approach invited no end of harsh criticism during the election campaign, with his challengers accusing him of being too soft and too patient with the federal powers.
That criticism is mislaid, Atleo told reporters after his victory speech, making a point of gently sending a message to other Canadians and Ottawa that he is no push-over, and that he will reflect the will of the regional chiefs who advise him.
“Massive transformative change is required right now. I do feel we are at a moment of reckoning right now, an incredible moment of reckoning, not just for First Nations but for this country,” he said, pointing to the need for improved housing and better living conditions on reserves.
“The path forward is only going to be hard or harder. It’s going to be harder if governments don’t come to the table and deal with First Nations in a respectful, rightful manner.”
While Atleo reached out to his opponents in his victory speech, some of them and their supporters remained bitter.
“We’re going to keep going,” said runner-up Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer who led an anti-Atleo campaign. “This is a movement that won’t stop now. Our movement is strong.”
Palmater claimed 141 votes in the third ballot, while Atleo won support from 341 chiefs out of 512. Bill Erasmus, a regional chief from Northwest Territories, placed a distant third.
Atleo’s victory on Wednesday shows that the large majority of chiefs could live with his plan, and want to see it continued, chiefs from all sides conceded.
“It’s a confirmation of the work that he’s done and that our executive and our chiefs have done over the last three years. And we have three more years to follow through with plans,” said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the B.C. regional chief and a staunch Atleo advocate.
Harper was quick to offer his congratulations, issuing a statement within seconds of the declaration of victory. And Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan noted the mandate Atleo has now to pursue their common agenda.
“Today’s outcome is an acknowledgment of the progress we are making toward our common goal of healthier, more self-sufficient First Nation communities.”
Just because Atleo and Harper have a joint plan and a mutual respect does not mean maintaining the relationship will be easy, however.
All eight of the candidates running for national chief repeatedly and adamantly rejected Harper’s changes to environmental laws. They demanded a far larger say in the sharing of the wealth from natural resources. And Atleo made a point of reminding the AFN that the organization opposes water legislation that is working its way through Parliament.
“It’s a challenging relationship. Having said that, we have to have a relationship with the federal government,” said Wilson-Raybould. “That’s our reality.”