Shawn Atleo the pragmatist couldn't reconcile opposing First Nations styles

Shawn Atleo's surprise resignation Friday appears to be rooted in a kind of political battle fatigue that saw the national chief waging a near constant rearguard action against rivals to his leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

Willingness to meet federal government part way didn't play well with more activist rivals

Shawn Atleo resigns: RAW

9 years ago
Duration 2:00
Assembly of First Nations national chief announces his resignation

Shawn Atleo's surprise resignation Friday appears to be rooted in a kind of political battle fatigue that saw the national chief waging a near constant rearguard action against rivals to his leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

The origins of the fight predate Atleo's own 2009 ascension to the leadership of the nation's most important First Nations organization.

Atleo is the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation on Vancouver Island.

Atleo's cultural heritage — and his family lineage — suggests leadership was a burden he was born to carry.

But the style of political fight practised among B.C.'s First Nations, and learned by Atleo, is pragmatic and incrementalist.

It's not rooted in the literalist Treaty tradition of the Prairie First Nations and in Northern Ontario. As one source suggested: In B.C., First Nations negotiate to claim rights. On the Prairies, they fight to take them.

These different approaches appear to be at the heart of the dispute surrounding Atleo's leadership and may be the root of his downfall.

'Smash the status quo'

Atleo's view of the national chief's role differed sometimes starkly from the view held by many of his critics.

"I have said it is our time as indigenous peoples, that we must smash the status quo, and that my job is as an advocate to open doors for First Nations to drive change," Atleo told reporters in his resignation speech.

Over the years — and despite his majority re-election — Atleo has had to contend with rivals who don't just want the chief to negotiate his way to open doors, but want him to smash through them.

That disagreement plagued the AFN's efforts in Ottawa during the #Idlenomore protests in January 2013, even though Atleo managed to secure a historic First Nation's meeting with the prime minister and some of his key cabinet ministers.

As Atleo and others were preparing to enter the Langevin Bloc for those discussions, outside hundreds of First Nations protesters choked the streets.

They had been led to Parliament Hill, in part, by hunger strikers who had joined Attawapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence in her protest.

But there were other groups led by dissatisfied chiefs such as Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak. And for a time, Ottawa was a hotbed of aboriginal leadership politics.

There were questions and debates about a possible overthrow that Atleo survived.

Relationship with the Crown

But the optics of going to see the prime minister on his territory and on his terms was offensive to some protesters and aboriginal leaders who were demanding a meeting with the Crown to be held on their terms.

There were those who said "the PM had to come see us," and that the Governor General had to be in the room in order to open a meeting to discuss an agenda decided by First Nations, one insider said.

These demands were rooted in an insistence that First Nations had to be recognized as nations, who were negotiating not with the leader of the government, but with the head of state. 

It's a small point, in practical terms, but in aboriginal treaty politics it's hugely significant. The historic treaties were negotiated with the Crown, and the Crown, through its representative, should be at the table.

Atleo's willingness to meet with the government without the GG in the room was considered a betrayal of this nation-to-nation principle, despite the fact it was impossible for David Johnston to offer anything but warm words.

Atleo's pragmatism and incrementalism, in that case was a problem — forget about the fact it got a meeting with the man who could actually make change: Stephen Harper.

Control of education

This debate over style simmered before rising up again this spring in response to the Conservative government's First Nations' education reforms.

The roughly $1.9-billion value of the deal is significant and the plan proposed to bridge the gap between what First Nations' children receive in federal government funding for schooling and what other children receive from their provincial governments.

But the First Nations control of First Nations education act also allows the federal government to retain the final say about much of how that education would be managed — a proposition that angered many chiefs.

The problem for many critics was that the government, in negotiating the plan with AFN, allegedly failed in its constitutional duty to consult nation-to-nation with affected aboriginal communities across the land.

The AFN, after all, is not a national government. Atleo is not a prime minister. And no matter how easy it might be for the feds to hold talks with just one chief, First Nations' reject that as the basis of consultation. 

The failure of the government to recognize this early on and work to avoid the problem was the final set-up to Atleo's downfall.

And Atleo became, in the view of critics, Harper's man when he appeared alongside the prime minister to promote the new deal at the Kainai High School on the Blood Tribe reserve north of Cardston, Alta.

But managing the politics of that was also Atleo's failure.

He was the politician who should have been able to predict the widespread negative response to the bill and was in a position to withhold his support should the Harper government fail in its consultations.

He didn't.

It appears the pragmatic incrementalist was too excited about the deal, and the cash and change it promised, to wait to gain consensus, if that was even possible.

The activists' fight now has turned from the government to the AFN leader for supporting the feds, and Atleo himself was likely to have his autonomy — if not his power — usurped at an upcoming Confederacy council of chiefs from across the country.

It was that threat, and shame, perhaps, that Atleo was trying to avoid with his resignation Friday.

Missed opportunity?

The real shame, according to one observer, is that Atleo has unfairly won the reputation of a man who was bought.

"People who try to dismiss him as a sell-out and Harper's puppet are not speaking the truth," the observer said.

In taking down Harper's man, Atleo's critics may have done their communities a disservice.

First Nations have now lost an advocate with whom Harper was at least willing to meet and listen.

And the government, by refusing to broaden its discussions beyond just the AFN, has lost its own chance to move quietly, and meaningfully, forward the relationship with Canada's First Nations.

Whoever succeeds Atleo, expect a fresh round of conflict in the relationship between Canada's government and the governments of its first peoples.