A rumoured movement to unseat National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo is being denied — at least for now — by a Manitoba chief who led last Friday's noisy boycott of Atleo's meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who denounced the meeting and joined protesters outside the Prime Minister's Office, told CBC News that he is not organizing any challenge to Atleo's leadership.
"Considering mounting a challenge to his leadership makes the presumption that it's all Shawn's fault, and I'm not ready to make that conclusion at all," Nepinak said in an interview from his Portage Avenue office in Winnipeg.
"We all know Shawn to be a loving person, a very kind person and a dedicated and committed professional to his job."
Nepinak added, though, that "whether that's enough to change the AFN and get it back on course is another question. We're going to give the national chief the benefit of the doubt for the time being and we're going try and work with him to rectify what's going on. And we'll deal with it at the right time."
Nepinak said his priority remains the fate of Chief Theresa Spence, not that of Atleo. Spence, the chief of the Attawapiskat band in northern Ontario, has been living on fish broth and tea since Dec. 11. She is demanding the prime minister include the Governor General in a meeting with chiefs — which did not happen last Friday.
Nepinak still endorses that demand and has called an assembly of Manitoba chiefs next Monday and Tuesday to discuss next steps. But he said he is not seeking a national assembly to vote non-confidence in Atleo, who is taking time off on doctor's orders, citing the stress from last week's internal battles.
Atleo's absence has provoked speculation that dissidents are plotting to remove him as national chief, even though he won re-election by a wide margin just last summer.
Under Article 22 of the constitution of the Assembly of First Nations, a national chief "may be removed by a majority of 60 per cent of the registered representatives of First Nations at a special assembly" convened for that purpose by chiefs from all regions.
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, APTN, reported Tuesday that emails among various chiefs indicated that some believe Atleo should step down.
The emails, which APTN said were provided on the condition that the authors' names be concealed, included one from Alberta saying, "Shawn is a young man. Health should not be an issue, and if it is, then perhaps he should resign and take a less stressful position in B.C."
Another, from an Ontario chief, said Atleo's sick leave "has a stench of seeking pity ... we need to consider serious examination of his actions and potential next steps." A third email, from Manitoba, said bluntly that "National Chief Atleo should take a permanent leave."
While not endorsing that view, Nepinak insisted that the number of dissident chiefs — those who said Atleo had no mandate to attend the meeting with Harper — was "a very large number." Pressed to say if he believed they were a majority, Nepinak declined.
As for removing Atleo, Nepinak said he was not even aware of the process to do that.
"I haven't spent a lot of time pondering or considering the process. Our first and foremost efforts now are trying to get that meeting done so that Chief Theresa Spence can continue to live amongst us. The issue with the national chief and the national organization is secondary at this time.
"When I do need to know about the logistics of a process like that, if it ever comes to that date, then I will certainly know it very thoroughly."