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Atleo Seeks 'Fundamental Shift' in First Nations–Federal Government Relationship

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples offers the way forward “to reset the relationship” with the federal government as First Nations leaders prepare for a historic meeting with Canada’s prime minister.

Atleo and First Nations leaders from across the country held an “Advocacy Day” with legislators in Ottawa on September 29. “We’re working on the issue of recognition of the need to work in a partnership based on the spirit and intent of the treaties we have across the country and the efforts being undertaken where there aren’t treaties to address the issues of aboriginal title and rights to be upheld,” Atleo said in an interview the following day.

Reflecting on “the fundamental shift required to reset the relationship” between First Nations and the federal government, Atleo said that the U.N. Declaration “stands as offering a way forward, offering a framework within which we can organize our work.”

Atleo and other First Nations leaders are preparing for a summit with Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which is expected to take place sometime this winter. Although Atleo has met individually with Harper, who has been in office since 2006 and in a majority since earlier this year, the leaders from across the country will meet with him collectively for the first time. The summit will be similar to the White House Tribal Nations Conferences that U.S. President Barack Obama held in 2009 during the first year of his term and again last December.

“This would be an opportunity for that nation-to-nation relationship to reflect on and set an agenda for going forward, one that challenges us to work together, which has always been the objective of the treaties,” Atleo said. “We’re specifically looking at implementing First Nations governments and the support required to accomplish and create new fiscal relationships. We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of that.”

The gap between funding for the provinces and funding for First Nations, particularly in areas such as health and education, is wide, Atleo said. Federal transfers to the provinces and territories for health and education increase at an annual rate of six percent, but funding for First Nations has been capped at two percent annually since 1996. As a result, high school graduation rates for First Nation students are only about 50 percent.

“The gap is growing, and things are getting worse in our communities,” Atleo said, referring to the loss of youth, the more than 500 missing and murdered women, a lack of desperately needed infrastructure for clean drinking water and housing on reserves, and overrepresentation of First Nations people in prisons, among other things.

In preparation for the upcoming budget season, the Assembly of First Nations filed a “pre-budget submission” with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, called “Structural Transformation & Critical Investments in First Nations on the Path to Shared Prosperity.” The document calls for:

  • An increase of $2 billion a year for education funding to provide comparable education outcomes for First Nations students. That amount does not include funding needed to close the gap in operations and maintenance or to renovate existing schools.
  • 40 new schools at an average cost of $12.5 million each
  • $6.6 billion to improve water quality in the 73 percent of First Nations with water systems that are at risk
  • 85,000 new housing units at a cost of about $150,000 each, plus around $25,000 for each for unserviced lots
  • Approximately $805 million for Non-Insured Health Benefits over the next five years

Asked if the predicted upcoming double-digit recess might throw the federal government’s budget plans out of whack, Atleo said he would not buy into that argument.

“I’m beginning to make the argument that maybe Canada would be participating less in a double-dip recession if it invested more in our people,” Atleo said. “When the economy was strong [they said] the money wasn’t there for First Nations. Now we’re hearing once again about a double-dip recession, and it’s a time of austerity. Their argument didn’t hold water then, nor does it now. I think there are both legal and moral reasons, but also a strong economic imperative to reconcile First Nation issues with the federal government in a way that implements our rights and the treaty rights.”

Regarding the provinces’ refusal to share resource revenues with the First Nations, Atleo had a two-part response. First, he said, there’s a need to communicate that the existing poverty among First Nations is expensive to Canada. He quoted a study that shows closing the gap in the First Nations education and labor market over a single generation would yield $400 billion for Canada’s economy, plus a $115 billion reduction in federal government spending on First Nations. But first and foremost, First Nations’ primary rights to their lands and resources must be asserted.

“Make no mistake that we begin the conversation with the notion that First Nations have a proprietary right that underlies all title in this country that creates a burden that is yet to be addressed, and that includes First Nations pursuing resource revenue sharing,” Atleo said. “We stand firmly on the Declaration’s principle that First Nations have the right to free, prior and informed consent” before development occurs on indigenous territory.

Canada’s assertion of the right to exploit the country’s natural resources and its exclusive claim to resource revenues is being challenged in a number of legal battles, notably at the Organization of American StatesInter-American Commission, Atleo said. Word also is spreading about First Nations land rights. “In major industries like energy and mining, other countries around the world, whether it’s Asia or Europe, are now learning that there are underlying outstanding title rights and treaty rights issues that currently exist in Canada. And First Nations are having those direct relationships now starting to emerge, so they can encourage Canada to reconcile the issues with the First Nations so that we move this from this fear-based sense of the ‘Indian problem’ to an abundancy-based, treaty-based notion of First Nations potential,” Atleo said.

The exploitation of resources on indigenous lands is a universal issue. In order to focus on it, AFN in partnership with the National Congress of American Indians held an International Energy and Mining Summit in the summer in Niagara Falls “so that we as indigenous peoples of North America can step more firmly into our title rights, our inherent rights, to help explain to the world that there is an underlying proprietary right that is yet to be addressed on the land issue that has severe and direct economic implications that should be transferred from the negative to the positive potential.”