APTN National News
GATINEAU, Que.-The Mi’kmaq who battled against a Houston-owned company conducting shale gas exploration in New Brunswick were not protestors, but “protectors,” said Assembly of First Nation National Chief Shawn Atleo.
In a video statement to chiefs gathered for the AFN’s special chiefs assembly this week at a casino in Gatineau, Que., Atleo praised the struggle of the Mi’kmaq from Elsipogtog First Nation and the region in their months-long demonstrations against SWN Resources Canada.
“These are not protestors,” said Atleo. “These are our protectors.”
Atleo is in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Nelson Mandela memorial. He was listed by the Prime Minister’s Office as among the Canadian delegation which included four former prime ministers.
Dene Nation National Chief Bill Erasmus said Tuesday morning that Atleo was not representing Canada, but First Nations people.
Erasmus also said it was appropriate that no Canadian representatives spoke during the memorial given Canada’s treatment of First Nation people.
The Harper government paid for Atleo’s trip to Johannesburg, according to an official with the AFN.
In his video speech, Atleo drew parallels between Mandela’s fight against apartheid with First Nations’ struggle against the Indian Act.
“We lost an incredible, courageous and inspirational Indigenous hero last week,” said Atleo. “The connection to all Indigenous people is critical and it is important to pay our deepest respect to a man that not only lifted the oppressive chains of apartheid from his people…Just like apartheid was linked to the Indian Act, so too can we now look to Mandela’s vision to be our guide for reconciliation.”
Atleo also returned to his oft repeated belief that Canada was at a turning point in its relationship with First Nations and he gave a nod to the Mi’kmaq who’ve faced dozens of arrests and a heavily armed raid by RCMP tactical units in their demonstrations and blockades against shale gas exploration in their territory.
“We are piercing the nation’s consciousness and making governments and industry and citizens realize that we are a force to be reckoned with and we will absolutely wake them up,” said Atleo. “We are in a very real moment of transformation.”
Atleo named Savannah Simon, a woman from Elsipogtog who was described in the New Brunswick press as a “prayer warrior.”
Atleo said Simon and her community’s struggle was more than just against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which would follow the discovery of shale gas deposits.
“It is about the clear right for First Nations to have a say in any activities that affects their lands, their waters and traditional territories,” said Atleo.
The national chief said First Nations are not “anti-development,” but want an equal place at the table.
“We are not development for development at any cost,” said Atleo. “Any development must be responsible, must be sustainable and we must be key partners.”
Atleo said Canada must respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
“We will tell Canada this approach is not an option, it is a key condition, it is non-negotiable, it is the law of your land,” said Atleo. “It’s a source of fear for governments and economic growth, but it can be and should be a move for mutual benefits.”
Atleo also addressed the looming 2015 leadership race to replace him as national chief.
“I know there is much interest and intrigue around the 2015 leadership contest,” said Atleo. “This is not about contests, not about politics, this is about our children, this is about the kids…We are absolutely stronger together.”