First Nations leaders remain united in their resolve to change the status quo, vowed Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo today (January 24).
“We have a common enemy, and it’s the status quo,” Atleo said at a press conference in Vancouver. “That’s what people are saying by gathering as they are, in rallies and in round dances, holding teach-ins about the reality of the legislative agenda."
The national chief made the comments after returning from a brief medical leave. Atleo returned just as Chief Theresa Spence marked the end of her hunger strike in Ottawa. The Attawapiskat First Nation leader had been subsisting on fish broth and tea for 44 days.
Atleo said the AFN will continue pushing the federal government for action on issues such as resource-revenue sharing and treaty implementation. The AFN has endorsed a 13-point declaration brought forward by Chief Spence calling for a series of commitments from the federal government, such as addressing the housing crisis in First Nations communities, launching a national inquiry on violence against indigenous women of all ages, and creating equity in capital construction of First Nation schools.
“We’ve arrived at a moment of reckoning,” said Atleo. “This is not a moment that is characterized by just today, or this week, or a certain meeting or gathering or rally. This is a moment that has arrived for all of Canada, not only for indigenous peoples in this country, but it’s one that’s arrived for indigenous peoples around the world, and it’s one that we must seize…now is the time for change.”
Atleo acknowledged the involvement of young people in the grassroots Idle No More movement, and stated that “real progress” has been made in recent weeks in bringing attention to First Nations issues.
“There is unprecedented engagement of our people,” Atleo told reporters. “This is tangible, it’s real and it’s here to stay.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief of the B.C. AFN, acknowledged what she called the "hope and optimism" within the Idle No More movement, and the calls that demonstrators have made for changes within their own communities.
"We recognize that not only does the hard work occur in challenging the federal government in its unilateral legislative agenda, but the hard work also occurs back home in our communities, to change the status quo and to take the energy that has been established now and to translate it into meaningful, practical benefits on the ground in our communities," she said. "That’s the hope, that’s the optimism, and that’s where the change is going to come."
Atleo downplayed divisions among leaders within the AFN, noting there are diverse opinions within the organization. The national chief and leaders from most regions met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on January 11, while regional leaders from Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories boycotted the meeting.
“We are diverse peoples...and with this rich diversity comes a wide variety of ideas of how we move forward,” said Atleo. “But make no mistake, on principles of substance, we are unified.”
Atleo and Wilson-Raybould were joined by other First Nations leaders including AFN regional chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Roger Augustine, Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Edward John of the First Nations Summit, and Sto:lo Tribal Council leader Doug Kelly. The chiefs are gathered for a two-day meeting at the Musqueam community centre.