Failed colonial policies plague First Nations to this day and are the biggest obstacle to progress, National Chief Shawn Atleo said Tuesday as he called for a "reset" of their relationship with the federal government.

"We must move beyond the Indian Act and we must affirm our Crown-First Nation relationship," he said during a speech on the first day of the Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa. "This 19th-century relic continues to hold us back in delivering better lives for our peoples."

Atleo said that despite the potential being reached by many young First Nations people and other areas of progress, it is still a "tragic, frustrating and even terrifying" time. Too many people are struggling with substance abuse and suicide, are sick from dirty drinking water, living in unsafe homes, and too many children go to school in cold, mouldy classrooms, Atleo said.

"Canadians saw for the first time last week what we see every single day, what our people live with day in and day out," Atleo said, referring to the situation in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. "Some of our communities, too many of our peoples live in appalling conditions. This is a national disgrace, and we have reason to feel angry and to feel betrayed."

The national spotlight is on the northern Ontario community, where the Red Cross flew in to provide assistance to residents, and the federal government appointed a third-party manager to take over the First Nation's finances. That appointee, Jacques Marion, and other federal officials arrived in Attawapiskat on Monday and were promptly asked to leave.

Avoid finger pointing, Atleo says

At the same time he said First Nations have reason to be angry, Atleo made a call to avoid finger pointing and blame, and said First Nations must accept their responsibilities to lead the way to better lives for their people.

"As I have heard many of our leaders say, we need to decolonize our thinking, to bring healing to our homes and to say once and for all, the pain, the injustice, it stops here," he said.

"Now is our moment; we need to drive the solution forward ourselves," Atleo said.

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The national chief said good work is underway across the country to build effective First Nation governments, but that no matter the relationship with the federal government, Ottawa "must fulfil its responsibilities to us."

He called for "direct engagement" with First Nations to settle land rights claims, and said the Assembly of First Nations has pressed Ottawa to recognize their rights in a way that is not determined behind closed doors by the federal government alone.

Atleo said the Crown-First Nations meeting taking place Jan. 24 will be a critical moment.

"We will encourage this to become an all-party movement, avoiding blaming, finger pointing and certainly not using the plight of our people to score political points," said Atleo. "We need the energy, we need the ideas and most importantly, we need the commitment of all parties to achieve this change right now."

"This may be this country's moment of reckoning in its relationship between First Nations and Canada," he said.

He called for a co-operative effort to identify challenges and to develop a "new agenda."

"The path forward calls us all to work to strengthen the Crown-First Nations relationship," he said.

Atleo also made a call for unity among First Nations members, and said division is another a barrier to progress.

"We cannot deliver the changes our people expect if we are fighting one another," he said.

Discussions wide-ranging

Atleo said they have the courage and confidence to create change, and that improving their lives means ensuring that governments faithfully implement their rights.

"To the Crown we say: Do not ever believe that this national chief, or any future national chief, will ever quit or will ever compromise treaty or inherent rights. No First Nations leader will ever take one step away from insisting on the rights as the foundation of our relationship," he said, garnering applause from the chiefs.

He said the Assembly of First Nations is extending a hand to Ottawa and is asking to work in partnership to form a renewed relationship, one based on rights.

During their three-day meeting with the theme "Realizing our Rights: Unlocking our Economies," First Nations leaders from across Canada will discuss priorities and challenges facing their communities and strategies to tackle them. 

Attendees will also participate in strategy sessions on education, clean drinking water, justice, health, treaty and land claim rights, residential schools, First Nations governance, environment and economic partnerships, and social welfare. They will hear from guest speakers, and Atleo says new partnerships will also be announced.

The chiefs will also be discussing preparations for the meeting in January with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.