Pressure mounts on Shawn Atleo, the quiet man at centre of First Nations storm

Associated Press

OTTAWA - The abrupt postponement Wednesday of an Assembly of First Nations news conference spoke volumes about the turmoil and mistrust that underlies planning for Friday's meeting between aboriginal leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

National Chief Shawn Atleo is tip-toeing through a minefield as he tries to negotiate a list of demands that must at once satisfy angry chiefs, win over the reluctant Conservative government and keep restless grassroots protests relatively peaceful.

Wednesday's cancellation — the array of chiefs who have been meeting all week to hammer out concrete proposals simply need more time, so they delayed the event until Thursday — was no surprise to those familiar with the complexity of First Nations issues.

Two large groups of chiefs, elders and advisers have been formed, one to deal with treaty and aboriginal rights, and another to deal with economic development. They had hoped to narrow down their grievances and then bring the two groups together to form a consensus on how to present their concerns.

With so many disparate views in the meeting rooms, and a concerted drive to present Harper with an effective, united front, "it was a little bit ambitious to get it all rolled up" by mid-afternoon Wednesday as hoped, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said in an interview.

"First Nation planning discussions and dialogue continue today. It is essential that this important dialogue continues," Atleo said in a statement.

The national chief's calm and steady manner betrays little of the storm that has besieged Atleo for more than a year.

When he was first elected national chief in 2008, it was on his strength as a negotiator, someone who had respectfully commanded the attention of B.C. politicians and hashed out workable solutions to First Nations problems.

Harper's government proved a tougher nut to crack, and Atleo spent much of his first term as national chief prying open doors and establishing a relationship that he hoped would lead to productive discussions.

Harper's apology for residential schools and then the high-profile Crown First Nations Gathering a year ago in Ottawa spoke to the efforts on both sides to set out a practical path forward that would pave the way towards more self-sufficiency, better education and economic development on reserves.

But the optimism within the AFN and its chiefs crumbled after last January's summit. Large groups of First Nations spoke out against the Atleo-Harper co-operation on education reform. First Nations advocacy groups saw their funding slashed dramatically in the federal budget. And by the time the AFN's elections for the next national chief rolled around in July, Atleo was under fire for being too cosy with the Harper government.

He mustered a solid win, assuring key groups of chiefs that he just needed more time to show positive results.

As summer turned to fall, however, Atleo's support among regional chiefs was faltering quickly. Harper had legislated major changes to environmental oversight and resource development without consulting First Nations; the education initiative with the federal government imploded; and soon, Atleo was issuing public warnings of massive unrest unless Ottawa started to make changes.

“When our people see no movement from the government to work with us, when they see backsliding, undermining and continuing threats and pressures on an already burdened population, the flames only grow stronger," Atleo said in an October speech at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"Our people will not stand for it. Rightly so, there is growing anger and frustration."

Strong words from a normally understated man that went unheeded until December, when chiefs gathered in Ottawa for annual meetings got fed up and marched spontaneously into the parliament buildings.

The quick but aggressive confrontation boiled over into grassroots protests across the country under the Idle No More banner, and into the potent protest launched Dec. 11 by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who is eating only fish broth inside her camp on a small island in the Ottawa River, upstream from Parliament Hill.

"Our people are saying, 'Just a minute here.' We want development, but not at any cost," said Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit in B.C.

With the federal government determined to ram through legislation and attract $650-billion in investment for natural resources at a record pace, John said First Nations are now ready to exercise whatever muscle they have to control the process.

"Now, our people are standing up and our people are engaged," he said.

On Friday, Atleo has a second chance to deliver. But now, with protesters and chiefs at his back, the stakes are higher than a year ago and the expectations more diverse.

"The national chief is a pretty progressive guy ... but his neck is kind of hanging over a bit on this one," said Mark Quinn, a former chief of staff to Robert Nault, who was Indian Affairs minister under Jean Chretien.

"He hasn't been able to deliver."

Key to a First Nations success at this week's meeting will be a firm commitment to modernize the implementation of treaties and aboriginal rights, but that will require far more than a single meeting with the prime minister, all sides acknowledge. The discussion of treaty rights involves First Nations getting a share of the bounty from natural resources.

The most concrete step would be a commitment for high-level political engagement in a series of negotiations to re-examine both treaties and comprehensive claims for areas of the country that don't have treaties, John and Nepinak said.

Whether that's enough to keep the protesters at bay and the chiefs at the table is another question, said Quinn.

"There is a sense that there was going to be a new relationship. There is a lot of pressure at the chiefs' level and the grassroots level. They want an end to this."

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