“We have the potential to make the most important gains for our people …” Atleo AFN National Chief

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Shawn Atleo
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo
OTTAWA – Leader’s Ledger – It is so good to see you all. Our winter assembly is an important time to reflect on the year coming to a close, to renew friendships and ties with each other, and to make plans for the coming year. We have the potential to make the most important gains for our people in health, education, and jobs that we have ever seen. We have more university graduates, more professionals and entrepreneurs among our young people than ever before. These are truly exciting possibilities. We WILL share in the benefits that flow from the resources on our lands, in more places, than ever in our history.

But we also know it remains a tragic, frustrating and even terrifying time. Too many of our women are “missing” and lost. Too many of our young people have fallen: from substance abuse, from despair, from suicide. Too many of our children sit each day in cold, mouldy classrooms, suffering from lingering illnesses bred by dirty drinking water and unsafe homes. Too many of our people live in homes and communities where they are not safe.

Canada saw for the first time last week what we see every day. What our people live with day in and day out. Some of our communities – too many of our peoples – live in appalling conditions. This is a national disgrace. And we have reason to feel angry and betrayed.

Far too many of our people are in prisons. And too many lead lives of quiet desperation on the streets of Canadian cities. Every one of those citizens needs our support.

Like the strong young man, I heard speak, from Wikwemikong in Ontario- overcoming a difficult upbringing in foster care that led to his substance abuse – he said with a voice of someone who has had to grow up way too quickly but has found a healthy place in his community and family – “we have to say enough is enough. And where do we start? With ourselves first. So we don’t pass on the hurt. ”. As I have heard many of our leaders say, we need to de-colonize our thinking, to bring healing to our homes and to say once and for all – the pain, the injustice stops here.

As leaders of our communities we must stand firm, with integrity and respect, for our right to economic benefits. At the same time, we accept our responsibility to lead the way rebuilding safer communities and paths back to lives of dignity and independence for all our people.

There are some who suggest that we must choose between our rights on the one hand, or economic development on the other. Or that we must choose either treaty implementation or program funding for our schools and healthcare systems.

This, in my view, suggests false choices, and has created divisions between and amongst us as First Nations.

There is only one struggle, there is one agenda, and one goal: to build a better life for all our people based on our rights, our identity and in fact our very survival. And we must use every tool that we have.

I, like you, have been there at the community level – confronting local bureaucrats for support for housing in the morning. Then battling for our resource rights against developers and politicians in the afternoon. During my years as a leader in BC, we fought together for strong agreements that recognize our rights on the use of our lands, our trees and our waters. We fought for secure funding for our children’s schools. And we fought for our rights in court. It is one battle. It is all part of the work we do and support today at the national level as well.

At the center, it is a fight for treaty and inherent rights and building effective First Nations governments. It’s also a pursuit for healthier, safer, more prosperous communities. Ensuring our people get the jobs and economic benefits when development of the resources occurs on our lands.

After all, how can a young person build a life as that skilled employee while trapped in a life of substance dependency? How can we build that strong local community government without the stable funding for its institutions? We need to WIN the treaty and rights implementation battle for BOTH.

How can we win this campaign for our young people? By refusing to accept false divisions, false choices: it is one battle with many fronts.

So – what connects all these threads? What is the one large obstacle to progress? What is the hangover of a paternalistic past that First Nations and Canadians agree must go? We all know the answer: it is failed colonial policies and approaches that plague us to this day. We must move beyond the Indian Act and we must affirm our Crown – First Nation relationships.

This nineteenth century relic continues to hold us back in delivering better lives for our peoples.

We do have new partners in this work. Canadians are increasingly aware of our issues, organizations and even corporate Canada is saying – that they recognize the absolute necessity of supporting First Nation potential given the aging Canadian demographic. We need to build this momentum – we need to educate ALL CANADIANS about our rights and our realities.

For example, as a result of our First Nations trade mission to China and dialogue with many embassies we are opening new opportunities for economic partnerships. Our partners understand when we say that sustainable development with First Nations will yield much greater mutual benefit. First Nations support development but this development must not come at a cost deemed too high by our peoples.
Right across the country, First Nations are forging new paths – whether it is through modern agreements like those in the Yukon, BC or Quebec, advancing Treaty clearly and effectively through the numbered Treaties or the work underway in areas of pre-confederation Treaties in Ontario and Atlantic. This is the work of moving beyond the Indian Act and building effective First Nations governments.

First Nations are driving change through advancing their own governments, building capacity and accountability through taking on greater responsibilities – this has been accomplished already in some areas and well underway in others.

We need to learn from one another, our challenges and our achievements. NO matter what region or what nature of relationship we are in – there is one clear requirement: the Crown – the federal government – must fulfill its full responsibilities to us, both as a Treaty partner and through modern agreements.

This is why all of you and those who have come before us have pressed so hard to re-set the relationship – to implement our rights confirmed in the Constitution, and in court cases. And, finally, a year ago through the Crown’s endorsement of the UN Declaration – this work got underway.

As it sets out – genuine reconciliation through mutual respect and partnership is the only way forward. And that’s also what the outgoing Auditor General said.

We’ve hosted 3 broad national planning forums and several others like the health and citizenship forums just last month – to bring First Nation voices together.

Through our Assemblies these past two years, a new consensus, new energy and urgency are apparent. Perhaps the most vivid example has been the very important work to bring together a national Treaty strategy. As mandated at our Assembly in 2010 – this work has included Treaty roundtables and close work with the Treaties 1-11 movement. I want to thank the incredibly powerful leadership from this movement for their work and their drive to push this forward. This work is now so very timely as we prepare for key next steps.

Now let me be clear, we all know that there is so much work ahead of us. That Indian Act bureaucracy and rules stand in our way and punish our people. Policies like Ottawa’s “Comprehensive Land Claims Policy” and their interpretation of “Inherent Right Policy” have not kept up with the decisions of Canada’s higher courts and important international agreements such as the UN Declaration. And even if we could come to agreement on the legal front, you all know well that your First Nations still struggle FOR fiscal fairness and FOR adequate revenue.

This all speaks loudly to the need for clear commitment for direct engagement with First Nations to improve negotiations and to deliver swift and fair resolution to our land rights.

By achieving true mutual recognition and respect we can transform the relationships between First Nations and Canada to one that is transparent, accountable and delivers significant new benefits to our peoples and to all Canadians. We need to keep building that momentum. In every region of this country, from cities, to small towns to our most remote communities.

Spending time with people within your territories has always been my priority: connecting with and listening to our First Nations peoples directly where they live; then taking THAT message to open the doors to fairness, to awareness and ultimately to resolution driven by each First Nation themselves through the halls of Parliament and government.

So we have pressed Canada to commit to work with First Nations, guided by the principles that recognize and affirm our inherent and Treaty rights and not in a manner that is pan Aboriginal, pre-determined or a closed door agenda – set by Government.

Yes we are absolutely wary of the reality of broken promises, reasons for mistrust, and the many, many reports and attempts already made – major efforts like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Kelowna Accord – all of this is important and instructive. All of this has helped suggest what is needed. NOW – this is OUR moment – we need to drive the solution forward ourselves.

Canada has now committed to a First Nations-Crown Gathering.
As indicated in his letter that we shared exactly one year ago at our Assembly, the Prime Minister signaled a willingness to work towards a Gathering that has now been confirmed for January 24th.

This commitment is a direct link to the Residential Schools Apology and builds on Canada’s endorsement of the UN Declaration. It is critical, that at this moment we say to Canada – this is about all of us. This is about all First Nations, it is about all Parliamentarians and it is about all of Canada. We will encourage this to become an ALL PARTY movement avoiding blaming, finger pointing and certainly not using the plight of our people to score political points. We need the energy, ideas and most importantly the commitment of all parties to achieve this change NOW.

This may be the moment of reckoning….

Our job at AFN, on your instruction, has been to open doors and encourage a willing Crown partner to come to the table.

This gathering is for you the leadership to engage directly with the Prime Minister and with Canada. (we have set aside a special planning session tomorrow evening to pull together all of our ideas on setting out this agenda) As our ancestors did, we will begin with ceremony – we can call on the third party to our relationship – the Creator – and affirm our relationship. Together First Nations and the Crown, we can identify our challenges, mark our progress; and, most importantly- we can develop a new agenda of future priorities TOGETHER.

We can be successful, because we must be – our people, our children – our elders and our ancestors deserve it.

First Nations leaders have come together, over the past two years, on delivering this work. We are diverse peoples, so there is not and cannot be only one path. But, we all share this: it is our journey together and we share a clear destination. The path forward leads to confirmation of our rightful place in our lands and territories. The completion of our journey together is the creation of lives, opportunities, and communities that cherish our children and guarantees them a better future.

The path forward calls us all to work to strengthen the Crown-First Nations relationship. It means accelerating the implementation of Treaty rights, and improving our ability to negotiate and implement our successes.

That is the focus I hear coming from Treaty Nine territory – from Grand Chief Stan Loutitt and as we stand with Chief Theresa Spence as the story of her community has unfolded in front of the whole nation. When I spoke with Chief Spence and leadership across the north we discussed the urgent needs but also that the way forward is based on respectful treaty implementation and an equitable share of resources from their land NOT imposed punitive unilateral action.

While her community finds themselves facing deep challenges, it doesn’t surprise me that Chief Spence and her people are at the very same time concerned about other First Nations in the same situation. This is who we are – we are Indigenous brothers and sisters with strong teachings of family and support for one another. We are, after all, in this together.

There is one more voice – a voice that has been lost this past week that I want to bring back – And that is the late Shannen Koostachin. Attawapiskat was her home. Those of you who were in Moncton this last summer will remember our youth council recognized Shannen as the first recipient of the Youth Advocacy Award. Shannen’s parents, Andrew and Jenny joined us to accept the award on her behalf.

Shannen understood the need for bold, decisive action to win good schools. I recall so clearly the day when I stood listening to her on the steps of Parliament Hill as she spoke clearly, intelligently with conviction and with great wisdom beyond her tender years.

She was only 13 but she already understood the need for a curriculum based on our culture and our stories. She knew that a cold mouldy classroom was never going to prepare them for success in the modern world. Shannen and her peers are the inspiration behind our work today on education – the need to break out of the strait-jackets of the past. The obligation we owe to our ancestors and our elders, survivors of the Residential School era, to build a better system for our children and grandchildren.

And I am confident that we are on the right path.

The National Panel will report early in the New Year and, together with other reports, we will have new awareness across Canada to move this forward. But then the hard work begins, turning Shannen’s Dream into funded, stable, decent schools for all our children.

I am SO honoured to have been entrusted with this work. In dozens of meetings and conversations, since the election two and half years ago, I have worked to make clear my unwavering commitment to you the leaders to support you and to push this work towards success.

You are the rights holders and the decision-makers. My job as National Chief and that of the National Executive is to stand shoulder to shoulder with you – to advance our shared agenda on the national and international stage. It is not and cannot be about me developing top-down solutions or having backroom discussions to cut a deal on your behalf. That after all is the very pattern of the government behaviour that we must break. Our job is listening, facilitating, supporting and communicating. And, make no mistake – we will leave no stone unturned, we will be un-relenting in supporting First Nation change to happen – and this means opening the doors and then getting out of the way for each of you to achieve, through your nation-to nation relationship, the change your people desire. That’s the leadership role we must play.

While acknowledging our diversity, the great value that our founders knew when they created the Assembly over 40 years ago – is our great strength derived through sharing and supporting one another. Together we will help implement the changes that build a better life for all our people.

We must stand strong, against fear-mongering and against those who would incite division. These tired old tactics have been used against us since the days of our ancestors. We cannot deliver the changes our peoples expect if we are fighting one another.

When we stand tall together, and lead, we will build those new communities, those new opportunities – based on our rights and our responsibilities – and our children will see a new dawn!

Our people demand that we seize every opportunity, that we face our fears and demonstrate the courage to turn each one to their benefit. We don’t create opportunities without considering the risks. We know the possibilities for treachery and for disappointment.

Did our Elders and Ancestors achieve great victories by never seizing a risky new possibility? Did they fight courageously against enormous odds by running away, by refusing to come to the table?! In fact, when they won it was because of their clear strategy, their insight and determination.

We honour their achievements by following their proud example.

Like them, we will never compromise our rights, our principles or our people for an agreement. You know that, I know that. Leadership requires that we stand firmly, with integrity, and seize every opportunity that offers the possibility to improve the lives of our peoples.

Let me end where I began: we have but one agenda – to fight every day to improve the lives and opportunities for our people. That means realizing the faithful implementation of our rights, it means ensuring that no government is allowed to forget their true meaning, their true history and the responsibilities they confer on each of us in a true relationship.

We have the courage and confidence to create change, change grounded in our rights, guided by the voices of our people, and by the vision of our Elders.

And to the Crown we say: Do not ever believe that this National Chief, or any future National Chief, will ever quit or ever compromise Treaty or inherent rights. No First Nations leader will ever take one step away from insisting on the rights as the foundation of our relationship.

Implemented fully, they are the foundation of our renewed relationship. We extend our hand, just as our ancestors did, and say: work with us. We are all partners in this together… and we are all here to stay.

As we are gathered here on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, we are reminded that our ancestors shed blood and died, fighting shoulder to shoulder -not as subjects but as allies- for our rights and those of the Treaty partner. To our courageous and proud veterans, we are eternally grateful.

I know that just as we are gathered here, together so too have our ancestors gathered… with their eyes on us and their vision inspiring us. The memory of their struggles is a fire that burns within us even now.

The eyes of our children are also on us. Many Canadians have seen those eyes for the first time this last week – brought into their living rooms. They plead with us to build them a better future. We cannot, we must not, we will not let them down.

As I said, I am thankful for being invited into your homes and villages – it is the moments spent with the elders and the children that touch me most deeply. These moments fortify and reinforce my belief that no matter the difficulty – no matter the obstacles, or seemingly impossible the challenges … we must together take this on – and never, never, NEVER quit or accept that the challenge is just too hard. There is after all a hard way or a harder way – there is no easy way. I know we can do this – we can do the hard work required by supporting one another.

This is my pledge to you: together, united and standing proudly under the gaze of our Ancestors, we will build a better future for every First Nations man, woman and child.

This pledge, this commitment, is our peoples’ right and expectation of us. It is the test of our responsibility to them and to the memory of those, on whose shoulders, we are privileged to stand.

It is a pledge that says It’s Our Time – and by this we mean that the pain and the suffering ends right here; right now – THIS generation. Together, we can close the chapter of a dark period of our history and turn the page to write a new chapter filled with hope and promise for our children and their children to come.

Kleco, Kleco!

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo
Assembly of First Nations

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