All eyes are on Shawn Atleo this week. (

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In a four-part series this week I’ll be considering the positions and challenges of some of the key players at the January 11th “working meeting” between the Harper government and several First Nation leaders. Today, National Chief Shawn Atleo. 

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is in a predicament that has been faced by every leader of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). He can try to work with the federal government and be criticized for going along with its agenda, or he can take a hard line and get no cooperation from the other side. 

The Chiefs created the AFN on the model of the United Nations, as a forum for the views of all Chiefs to be heard, where resolutions would be passed directing positions to be advocated or actions to be pursued. The AFN carries out those directions and does not — despite what many seem to think — either hold itself out to be the national government of First Nations nor actually set the agenda. While there are occasionally conflicting interpretations of the breadth of the mandate given to the AFN through resolutions, the organization knows that the First Nations themselves are the rights holders and the final word on what happens in their territories.

The AFN, however, sets the tone for interventions with the government and the perception of that tone has been the National Chief’s second biggest problem. Shawn Atleo is a deeply thoughtful man and a natural diplomat.  His personal inclinations elevate respectful dialogue to the priority.  That appears as weakness both to First Nations citizens who are frustrated by a lack of progress on the issues and to a federal government that opts for bully tactics as a first resort. 

The National Chief’s biggest problem is that he has no partner on the other side. The Conservative government does not engage, it dictates. It has an agenda, borne of a political ideology and directed toward an economic goal that does not leave room for Indigenous rights and interests. It behaves as a bully, clumsily, but effectively when not met by firm resistance. The AFN has not had the tools to resist.

Recall that the AFN receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government and the horns of the dilemma get sharper. Take a tough line and get your funding cut, making effective advocacy even less likely. Comply and the Harper government will keep pushing its agenda until your own people get fed up with you. Harper has cut 50 per cent of the AFN’s core funding since 2006, and after gaining a majority in 2011, he has been able to proceed with his colonialist legislative agenda relatively unimpeded by Parliament. If Mr. Harper had wanted to work with the AFN, he would not have put the National Chief in this position. Instead, he has cut Mr. Atleo off at the knees.

So what is the National Chief to do? 

He emerged from the Crown-First Nations Gathering last January with a handful of vague and completely empty promises. Prime Minister Harper proceeded to go the other way, with funding cuts and an aggressive legislative agenda that made the vacuity of his promises entirely obvious to all, and the AFN’s position untenable.

In 2012, the National Chief won re-election, but Dr. Pam Palmeter, who presented the option of a harder line and outsider’s perspective, received a surprising amount of support. She is now one of the spokespeople for Idle No More.

In that election, Chiefs criticized the AFN’s failure to predict the bully would just keep pushing and they gave the National Chief a mandate to pursue a tougher line in response. Mr. Atleo recognized this in his acceptance speech where he said, “We will stand together and put the final stake in colonialism.” And, “We will reject government’s attempt to deny or extinguish our rights.”

The question for the National Chief is how to follow through on that promise this Friday. Actions since the Crown-First Nations Gathering last year show that the Harper government is an untrustworthy partner, committed to an ideology that does not respect the Aboriginal and treaty rights enshrined in section 35 of Canada’s Constitution. First Nations are demanding that the federal government undo the current agenda and create a new relationship. 

The National Chief has new tools at his disposal, a widespread movement with international support is standing up proudly with no signs of stopping, and Mr. Harper’s beloved resource extraction industry is increasingly uncomfortable with his handling of this critical file (more on that Wednesday). 

With leverage he has never had before, the National Chief has an opportunity to push back at the bully, either extracting concrete, enforceable concessions or encouraging the blowback to rise until it hits Mr. Harper in the face, as bullies often need before they will learn a lesson. This is a delicate message to deliver effectively. For this meeting, Mr. Atleo’s skills as a diplomat may be exactly what are needed.

This is the first of a four-part series this week. Tomorrow, Chief Theresa Spence.