Editorial: Atleo keeps his crown

Every once in a while, by a cosmic long shot, the meek really do inherit the Earth. What’s unsaid is that they’re never so meek again once they’ve taken the reins of power.


Every once in a while, by a cosmic long shot, the meek really do inherit the Earth. What’s unsaid is that they’re never so meek again once they’ve taken the reins of power.

Amid increasing calls for his ouster, Shawn Atleo triumphed in his first re-election bid as national chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations. The AFN represents about 785,000 "status" Indians, or First Nation members, across the country, though not Inuit or Métis communities. The voting was carried out by 540 chiefs gathered from across the country in downtown Toronto for the group’s thirty-third annual assembly.

(In a downtown core well acquainted with rag-tag aboriginal groups protesting outside posh resource company annual meetings, there was kind of a hilarious sign of the shifting power structures in the country: Toronto-based, publicly traded explorer Solid Gold Resources and the Ontario branch of the Union of Miners agitated for their supporters to attend the AFN meeting to "exercise your constitutional right to free speech and equality," and "voice concern about dwindling public access to Crown land and raise awareness about the economic impact on you." Solid Gold has been publicly frustrated over its legal battles with the Wahgoshig First Nation in relation to its mineral claims east of Timmins, Ont.)

Atleo won easily on the third ballot, dismissing a suite of challengers, many of whom represented those who thought that since his election as national chief three years ago, he has been far too soft in dealing with the federal and provincial governments and others with respect to hot button aboriginal issues, such as natural resource development, poverty abatement, improving health care and expanding education opportunities.

As a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation from halfway up the western coast of Vancouver Island, Atleo’s rise to political prominence in Canada three years ago represented a multi-faceted change for AFN’s leadership: a generational one, with Atleo being 42 at the time, and not a product of the defunct and damaging residential school system that traumatized many aboriginals in the Twentieth Century; a geographical one in-line with the broader rise in Western political clout, with Atleo coming from the West Coast, as opposed to past AFN leadership mostly from the Prairies or Eastern Canada; and a change in leadership style, with the chatty and personable Atleo probably quite at home sitting in a tailored outfit at a Starbucks tweeting on a smart phone, as opposed to some of his more sombre predecessors.

With Atleo convincingly doing away with doubts over his leadership, the recent confab of provincial and territorial premiers and Atleo in Lunenburg, NS, ahead of the formal premiers’ meeting in Halifax, the pro-big business Canadian Council of Chief Executives now prominently calling for Aboriginal peoples to be "true partners in resource and energy projects" in Canada, and with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline controversy on the boil, there’s been a resurgence of interest and optimism in further formalizing and entrenching Aboriginal participation in new resource projects, which are being looked at in ever-more remote locations in Canada, where aboriginals more often than not outnumber non-aboriginals.

In another case of a historically politically disadvantaged group — women — now ruling the roost, we have for the first time female premiers of two of Canada’s richest provinces publicly feuding over money. BC Premier Christy Clark openly states that her government will block the controversial $6-billion Northern Gateway project unless the province gets an unspecified "fair share" of windfall cash, and Alberta Premier Alison Redford in turn flat-out rejects any special deal for British Columbia, if only to avoid setting any precedents for Alberta-based pipelines that stretch across other provinces or US states.

It’s all a moot point, though, as aboriginal and environmental opposition to Northern Gateway is far too strong for anyone to ram this project through the multitude of unwilling communities in BC’s north. And the latest revelation of Enbridge’s shocking incompetence in dealing with the Kalamazoo River oil pipeline spill in Michigan in 2010 (U.S. regulators even described Enbridge as "Keystone Kops") has only hardened opposition to Northern Gateway.

At least this bickering by the premiers over future fantasy cash flows gives everyone political cover to abandon the Northern Gateway idea for a few decades, and seek out better pipeline routes farther south.

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