(Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox (centre) and Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day (right) at meeting last Thursday urging AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo not to go to meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. APTN/File photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Moments after Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo announced he was following his doctor’s orders and taking a temporary leave of absence, emails started to fly between some First Nations leaders and political staff discussing whether it was time for him to step down.
Atleo is currently on leave for between 10 to 14 days on as a result of the after-effects of norovirus and exhaustion.
His announced leave came on the heels of a dramatic week which culminated with his controversial decision last Friday to lead a delegation of First Nations chiefs into a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, three cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats. The national chief went ahead with the meeting despite strong opposition from leaders in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan who wanted Harper and the governor general to meet with them at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa.
And while, on the surface, the disagreement over the meeting was over logistics–location of meeting, who attends–it stemmed from a much deeper divide between Atleo and treaty chiefs in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan that has been magnified by recent events.
APTN National News has obtained a string of emails triggered by Atleo’s official announcement Monday that he would be taking temporary leave. The emails offer an unvarnished snap-shot of existing opinions and reaction to the announcement among some in the First Nations political establishment.
The emails were obtained under the condition that APTN National News would not identify the individuals involved in the discussion. The emails were sent to a number of chiefs, political staff and band officials in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
“I can’t recall a NC taking medical stress leave before. Shawn is a young man. Health should not be an issue, and if it is, then perhaps he should resign and take a less stressful position in BC,” said one email from a band official in Alberta.
“This has a stench of seeking pity and endearment…If the NC is sick I will be the first to show compassion and reasonable sympathy, but let’s separate the political mess we are in away from that. I think we need to consider serious examination of his actions and potential next steps,” wrote one Ontario chief.
“National Chief Atleo should take a permanent leave. He should step down for breach of mandate because he would not take formal direction or the treaty nations should order the AFN to cease and desist from any negotiations or discussions regarding the numbered treaties, ” wrote one political aide from Manitoba.
A source close to Atleo, however, said much of the dissent facing Atleo comes from a group of chiefs that are still fighting the 2012 election. The source singled out Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox as one of the leaders of this group.
“The 2012 divisions are still being fought,” said the source.
Atleo easily won the election this past summer in Toronto over second place candidate Pam Palmater, an Indigenous rights activist and Ryerson University professor.
The source dismissed claims by Ontario, Manitoba and some Saskatchewan leaders that Atleo was directed last Thursday by the majority of AFN chiefs not to go the meeting. The source said the gathering of chiefs the evening before Friday’s meeting was not an official assembly.
“We didn’t listen to Wally Fox and his gang of supporters. There was open space that was for the treaty group meeting….the chiefs came, they crashed the meeting. It was never a decision making assembly,” said the source.
The source accused Fox and his supporters of orchestrating the whole thing by tipping off the media and allowing them into the Delta Hotel conference room to film their demand.
“They used all the tools are their disposal to put the national chief in a bad place,” said the source.
Atleo and several chiefs from every region except Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, attended the meeting while protestors swirled around the meeting’s location at Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and sits across from Parliament Hill.
The dissenting chiefs, however, viewed the meeting as illegitimate on principle and said Atleo had no business discussing treaty rights without a mandate from them.
The source said those chiefs are in the minority, and the AFN would continue to work and get results.
“It was Manitoba and Ontario that were adamant and are now upset, while Saskatchewan was divided because people from Saskatchewan attended the meeting,” said the source. “We have two and a-half regions conflicted and the rest of the country that is engaged. I think we want to work for all regions of the country and respect the diversity of opinions.”
Fox, however, said the dissent faced by Atleo has nothing to do with the 2012 election.
“It’s about mistrust,” said Fox, whose community is part of Treaty 6 in Saskatchewan. “We tried working with him as chiefs.”
Fox said Atleo hasn’t even reported back to the chiefs about the outcome of the meeting with Harper.
“There was no report of outcome from the Jan. 11 meeting with the prime minister,” said Fox. “Many of us chiefs saw the results of the meeting in the news media. He didn’t have the courtesy or respect for the people and (Attawapiskat Chief Theresa) Spence.”
Discontent with Atleo from some quarters has existed for awhile, but it has intensified since this past December. Its latest manifestation began shortly after it emerged late last month the national chief met with Harper on Nov. 28. The meeting happened the week before Fox, Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee and Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Derek Nepinak briefly scuffled with guards after they tried to enter the House of Commons.
The four chiefs didn’t know Atleo met with Harper. The revelation triggered informal talk behind the scenes around whether it was possible to seek a non-confidence motion against the national chief. But with their grassroots citizens leading escalating Idle No More rallies across the country, such talk was submerged under the need to appear united.
Fox said Atleo has still not told chiefs what that meeting with Harper was all about.
While tensions within the AFN have always existed as a result of the vast geographical, historical and political differences between First Nations spread out across the second largest country in the world, the emergence of the Idle No More movement and the unplanned decision by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to launch a now over month-long liquids-only fast exerted tremendous pressure on the organization.
With flash mob round dances, rallies, rail and highway blockades continuing to unfold across the country, the First Nations leadership has been grappling with how to deal with a sudden political awakening by the grassroots, both on-reserve and off-reserve in the nation’s largest cities.
Facing Spence’s fast and feeling the heat from grassroots citizens through Idle No More rallies, some First Nations chiefs felt compelled to respond by taking a harder line against the Conservative government. In late December, a group of about 50 chiefs met over conference calls and in person in Ottawa to discuss what to do next.
It was during those discussions that the planned day of action set for Wednesday first emerged along with plans for economic disruptions through highway and rail blockades, among other tactics. Rallies, marches and blockades are now expected to unfold from Nova Scotia to British Columbia that day.
A summary and minutes from a Dec. 28 discussion between treaty chiefs obtained by APTN National News also sheds some light on how the First Nations leadership was grappling with what was unfolding on the ground.
“Idle No More as a movement is not clear about what they want from the chiefs. Statements have been made that the chiefs are not communicating with grassroots. Chiefs are clear they are not here to take over the movement, but support the activities,” said the summary. “Self-determination, indigenous sovereignty and protection of land and water are primary objectives of Idle No More. They are adamant that our treaties are not made with the Canadian state. Chiefs agree with statements in principle, but at issue is how do we carry this out and continue to co-exist peacefully in this country…It was clear that a lot of the activities under the banner of Idle No More are outside the control of chiefs. Chiefs can and should support ‘direct action’ activities and these will be up to individual bands however.”
The chiefs also discussed how to deal with Spence’s fast which limited their options by reducing their timelines and maneuverability. By this time Spence was developing sizable support from the grassroots and her protests dovetailed with the Idle No More movement.
“We have found there is an immediate need to pressure PM to meet with Chief Spence. Chief Spence’s situation by her spokesperson has been characterized as ‘dire.’ It was agreed that in the short-term immediate pressure needs to be stepped up because Chief Spence’s health is at risk,” said the summary of the meeting. “First Nations leadership must also focus on informing and education band members, the general public and having a clear statement of objectives ready for the prime minister in respect to Chief Spence’s efforts to secure a PM, Chiefs and Crown meeting.”
Behind the scenes, discord also developed between AFN officials and Spence involving accusations Spence was facing pressure to end her fast. Nepinak also urged Spence to end her fast in a Christmas Eve letter.
As a result of the meetings, Atleo sent a letter to Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston on New Year’s Day inviting them to a planned treaty meeting in Saskatchewan on Jan. 28. Spence’s camp reacted, saying the date was too far away.
The Prime Minister’s Office responded, announcing Jan. 11 as a meeting date between Harper and a small delegation of First Nations chiefs along with a separate meeting with Johnston.
After Spence took the position the meeting wasn’t good enough because the prime minister and the governor general would not be jointly present, several chiefs lined up behind her, forming a common front against the meeting unless the terms changed.
It all culminated last Thursday evening in a conference room at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa. With the media allowed into the room for the first time during the week-long meetings, Fox, Nepinak and several other chiefs called on Atleo to boycott the meeting.
“No longer will the prime minister dictate to us. If we have to shut down this economy, then we will,” said Fox. “We need to stand to united, we heard that all day…no more, Harper no more, idle no more.”
Nepinak said Manitoba chiefs were also rejecting the meeting unless it met Spence’s demands.
“We are not walking away, we are standing strong here, it was a simple request that (Harper) come and meet with us, bring the governor general with…and come and meet with us chiefs and he can’t follow through with that,” said Nepinak. “Manitoba stands with Chief Theresa Spence.”
But Atleo and several chiefs still attended the meeting..
Atleo and the delegation of chiefs went in with a list of eight items they planned to push, including calling for a national inquiry into murdered and missing women, halting sections the omnibus bill C-38 and C-45 that impact treaty and Aboriginal rights, guaranteeing top rate schools in every First Nation and creating a cabinet committee with a Privy Council secretariat focused on the First Nation-Crown relationship.
They came away with a commitment from the prime minister to provide a mandate for “high-level” talks on treaty implementation and comprehensive claims along with the possibility for further meetings within weeks.