Atleo Survives ‘Referendum’ on Leadership, but Critics Hope for Tougher Stance

Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | July 30, 2012 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors / 22,500 (magazine)

Flanked by his great-aunts and adorned with a Nuu-chah-nulth woven cedar hat, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo took the stage to celebrate his reelection as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on July 18 in Toronto.

Atleo won the third, final round with the ballots of exactly two-thirds of the 512 chiefs and proxies eligible to elect their national spokesperson. He beat his main challenger, Mi’kmaq lawyer and sovereigntist academic Pam Palmater, who took 27.5 percent of votes. The election saw a historic seven rivals challenge Atleo and more than 120 chiefs abstain.

“We will stand together and put the final stake in colonialism,” Atleo proclaimed after his victory, heralded by enthusiastic drumming followed by a lengthy handshaking procession. “We will reject government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights. First Nations must be full partners in addressing the issue of resource development in this country. It’s far overdue. We will reject the government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights, and we will move forward together with a clear plan for reform based on recognition, nation-building, and building the capacity of our governments.”

But while some media commentators—and leadership hopefuls—had labeled the hereditary chief of B.C.’s Ahousaht First Nation “conciliatory” and “cozy” with the current Conservative government in Ottawa, Atleo’s victory is no sign of content in Indian country, according to observers. If anything, his victory speech indicated a willingness to take a stronger-than-usual tone.

“Native people are not happy with the status quo,” Wab Kinew, an Anishinaabe independent journalist and commentator in Manitoba, told Indian Country Today Media Network, adding on a sarcastic note, “Our supposed ‘status quo’ leader, Shawn Atleo, is one who says he will stand up against the Northern Gateway pipeline, who opposes the Federal Government’s omnibus budget bill and says it is time to end colonialism. In mainstream politics that would be considered a radical agenda. In spite of what some of the candidates said, all eight of them were against the status quo. There was no dispute about that in this election—just a question of which approach to take.”

During the campaign, Kinew hosted an online opinion poll on his website—by no means statistically reliable, he admitted—which was prophetic in its predictions for the opening ballot. Atleo led Kinew’s poll with nearly 35 percent support, followed by Palmater with nearly 28 percent and candidate Ellen Gabriel, with more than 14 percent. In the end, the first AFN round gave Atleo nearly 53 percent—just shy of the 60 percent needed—with Palmater at nearly 18 percent and Gabriel in fifth place with six percent. The final showdown between incumbent Atleo and his main challenger, Palmater, may have been prescient, but clearly online participants’ support was skewed toward the unprecedented number of women running, and tended to favor the more radical and sovereignty-focused candidates.

Kinew said he believes his online sampling better reflects the grassroots of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, who are unable to vote for the AFN’s leader, raising calls from some quarters for future elections to be opened to all status First Nations members.

“The reason I did the poll was so we could compare the AFN election outcome with a poll that would offer somewhat of an indication of what the grassroots felt,” Kinew said. “Because it is only chiefs and their proxies who vote in the AFN election, they are not going to have the same ideological makeup as a group of Internet users. The internet audience is younger and shares a lot of information with each other about environmental and social justice issues, so that perspective finds a lot of traction.”

But others disputed the significance of a Chief-grassroots divide. One of the country’s most celebrated indigenous figures—former AFN Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi, a Cree leader who held the National Chief post from 1991 to 1997—jumped to Atleo’s defence.

“I would not support Atleo if he was close to the government,” Mercredi told the convention. “He’s close to the people, which matters most.”

The campaign saw some calls to extend AFN elections to all First Nations people, not just Chiefs, a view summarized in the Globe and Mail by Anishnaabe author Richard Wagamese on July 17.

“There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the Assembly of First Nations,” he wrote. “To be a First Nations person in Canada is to be rendered voiceless by the very organization that purports to represent you.”

And while Atleo’s rhetoric of driving a “stake in colonialism” may have been fiercer than usual in tone, his election runner-up told ICTMN that the real test is whether he will heed criticism of his relationship to the Conservative government, as well as some Chiefs’ complaints that too much decision making has become concentrated in the National Chief’s office and the AFN Executive Committee.

“He had stronger language after the election,” Palmater said in an interview with ICTMN a week after the convention. “There was huge dissatisfaction. [But] it looks like we’re joining Harper in his joint assimilation plan, focusing on integration and unlocking our lands to maximize benefits to Canadians. How on Earth is this to our benefit?”

Palmater, who said she plans to run again in 2015, pointed to the substantial funding that the AFN receives from the federal government, as well as to recent federal budget cuts, as a sign the organization has become too constrained in its ability to confront the state.

“The AFN is an advocacy organization funded by the federal government, which started out as something completely, completely different,” she said. “It’s becoming almost the opposite of what it started out as. I thought we had a chance here—if there are enough people around who can take it back to what it used to be.”

Such fiery criticisms during the campaign are what led Jorge Barrera and Tim Fontaine of the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) to call the race “one of the most fractious election campaigns in recent memory.”

For Native studies professor Peter Kulchyski at the University of Manitoba, criticisms of Atleo’s conciliatory approach may have been exaggerated.

“My own sense,” he told ICTMN, “is that Atleo was not as collaborationist as portrayed – until his attempt to leverage some financial support from Harper over infrastructure issues last winter. Many folks, myself included, thought he had leveraged too little to be seen as successful. There has been a dynamic of somewhat more radical … to somewhat more institutional Grand Chiefs, but I think that dynamic … has dispersed. Atleo is tacking between a confrontational and collaborationist stance, trying to be both pragmatic, while retaining an Aboriginal rights agenda.”

Kulchyski suggested that regional dynamics, particularly the concentration of bands in Atleo’s province, likely played a more prominent role in favoring the incumbent’s leadership.

“If B.C. votes with a united voice—because of the number of bands there—they tend to determine the outcome,” he explained. “So if none of the challengers siphoned off any B.C. support, they would have had a rough road at the best of times.”

According to one proxy voter from B.C., that is precisely what happened.

“I basically stayed in line with the other B.C. chiefs and supported Shawn Atleo,” said former Neskonlith First Nation Chief Arthur Manuel, chairperson of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade. “I think he deserves a second term. My primary reason is that Shawn has had a very open mind about forcing the federal government to change its existing ‘extinguishment’ of aboriginal title and rights.”

Manuel said he hopes Atleo’s second term will be marked by a more assertive relationship with Ottawa.

“He knows how the system works, and he can now push our issues,” he said. “People who supported him for his second term expect that he will force things and move ahead. I think that the National Chief has been inhibited by some of the approach left over from the previous National Chief. I looked at who would best deal with having our aboriginal and treaty rights recognized in Canada.”

Whether Atleo will adapt or maintain his suit-and-tie approach to Ottawa, Kinew said, remains to be seen.

“This election was a referendum on Shawn Atleo’s leadership,” he said. “There were a lot of people disappointed with his first term, and in this campaign we had a chance to hear many of the reasons why. Yet no one could effectively unite the anti-Atleo sentiment. This tells me that the chiefs believe that his approach is right on the whole, yet needs to be tweaked. What I’ll be watching for is to see whether or not Atleo adapts to that criticism: namely, will he spend more time bringing people in and winning consensus for his approach? At the same time he has the mandate to move ahead on the big issues First Nations face.”

Atleo’s office turned down several requests for an interview with ICTMN. Only a week after his election, he hit the ground running at the Council of the Federation—an annual meeting of provincial and territorial leaders—where he called for First Nations inclusion in decisions around resources and energy matters.

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