Shawn Atleo, the newly re-elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called on all Canadians to unite with his people in making a new future for native people, saying they "are on the cusp of major transformative change."
"It is about time we pull back the veil on misunderstanding and we engage all Canadians to walk with us and give effect to the notion... we are all treaty people," said Atleo at his Toronto news conference Thursday.
He also paid tribute to the young people in native communities.
"You can’t helped but be moved by stories of resilience of what young people are achieving irrespective of seven generations of residential schools."
Atleo reiterated what he considered key issues: resource development, economic sustainability and called for a national inquiry into the hundreds of dead or missing native women across the country.
Atleo said he would stand up to any attempts to sweep away native rights to their resources or control over their lands:"We will act on our rights, our treaty rights, our inherent rights, our title rights."
The remark echoes what Atleo said on CBC News Network earlier when he said he will stand up to protect the rights of his people when push comes to shove in dealing with the federal government. Atleo countered critics who say he's too soft on Ottawa.
The AFN leader pointed out that Ottawa, with Bill C-38 [the budget implementation bill], was attempting to "overstep treaties that have been validated in UN international law and in the Canadian constitution" and vowed that "First Nations will stand for their rights to protect the environment and the right to their fair share of resources."
Atleo emphasized the importance of team work and and need to "join together."
While Atleo said he had a "strong set of instructions" from the chiefs, many were expressing their disappointment over his previous term.
Cozy with the Conservatives
"There are some very clear concerns that have come from the various regions," said Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nation.
"There has been this question: is the national chief's office too close to the Conservative government?"
During the campaign, candidates charged that the leadership has played nice with the federal government only to receive nothing in return.
"We [had] seven candidates challenging Atleo," Pamela Palmater, who finished second on the ballot, said during the campaign.
"I think that's almost history. So for me, and what I'm hearing, that is pretty strong evidence that we're not happy with what's happening."
Palmater was one of four female candidates who ran against Atleo. The female candidates pushed to have their issues dealt with, namely domestic violence on reserves, sexism and and the missing women inquiry.
During the CBC interview, Atleo highlighted key issues he wanted to work on, including creating "safe and secure communities," and he pointed out his concern that there are more than 600 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls.
Smaller communities raise concerns
While there is general recognition that the national chief has a broad area to serve, some have accused Atleo of ignoring the concerns of smaller communities.
They claim he has not responded to myriad crises within member communities, including suicide and housing needs.
"They feel like he couldn’t even be bothered to come to an event to introduce himself to the community and to the next generation. So they lack the confidence that he would take their voices," said one delegate.
"People are feeling we need more action, we need to be more rebellious if need be, and they’re not sure he’s going to do that," she said.
On Thursday, Atleo talked about the "realities" faced by native communities and that "conditions are getting worse." The AFN leader emphasized the importance of the sharing of resource revenues so his communities can become economically self-sufficient in order to address issues of poverty, the lack of housing and the dearth of career opportunities.
Atleo building bridges, supporters say
Supporters defend Atleo’s methods, saying he has been trying to build bridges with the government and other parties.
"People see that as getting too cozy. I don’t see it that way," said Chief Will Adam of Lake Babine, B.C.
"I think we need to talk more to the government and get a better understanding. I don’t believe in confrontation to stand in the way of progress."
Chief Kirby Whiteduck of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation added that Atleo is not the first chief to take a conciliatory approach with the government, and that chiefs are more interested in results than attitude.
"If it’s too cozy and it’s not working, then he will have to address that," Whiteduck said.
"Basically it depends on whether he has a backup plan," he said.
"I think all the chiefs realize he is the spokesperson and he may have a particular approach," said Whiteduck, adding that the chiefs have enough influence to propose different strategies for Atleo to consider.
Day conceded that Atleo has already begun addressing the perception that he isn’t tough enough with the government, and that he does face many challenges. But overall, Day concludes, Atleo must push harder.
"There are just certain things the chiefs want and we don’t want to be pushed back any further. The status quo isn’t acceptable," he said.
"We’re a lot further back than where we were three years ago."