I've met every Assembly of First Nations National Chief going back to the late 1980s, when Georges Erasmus was the leader. Taken as a group, they cover a broad range of personality and disposition. I've gotten to know Georges the best, having written for him across a decade and more, but Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is probably the AFN chief who put me most at comfort, right from our first conversation, in a North Bay restaurant.
Atleo had already by that time been facing challenges to his leadership. We spoke about Idle No More and the differing and irreconcilable views across Indian Country. Shawn Atleo comes from a community where traditional, hereditary leadership continues to be observed, and he's well attuned to the irony - or is it a paradox? - that it's the traditionalists who most object to the Assembly of First Nations (which they consider an illegitimate arm of the federal government) and who lead the campaign to dissolve it.
I believe that Atleo's intentions as National Chief were sincere and honourable. So it discourages me, and makes me pessimistic about the future, when I hear the claims that the National Chief is selling out First Nations for personal glory and gain. The current education debate goes all the way back to the early 1970s, when Harold Cardinal authored "Citzens Plus" and the Assembly of First Nations, as it was renamed that year, put forward the report Indian Control of Indian Education.
"Citzens plus" comprised the faction of native people who think of themselves as Canadian citizens. The opposing faction is constituted of those who regard themselves as citizens of their respective nations. Anyone who thinks this division will go away any time soon is living in a fantasy world. Atleo is merely the latest leader to be caught in the crossfire, and whoever succeeds him will face much the same structural pressures and prospects. I know that this is confusing to Canadians, as well as being a source of gloom and consternation. But factionalism is, after all, an inheritance of colonialism, and as a general rule you don't get the sea-to-shining-sea baby without the brackish bathwater.
Had he stuck around, National Chief Atleo would have faced an almost certain rebellion, followed by a protracted and acrimonious impeachment. Those who are today celebrating the demise of a despised leader should know that none of the likely successor candidates is any less political than he is, and most are much more so. In the last election, for example, he faced a challenge from Terry Nelson, an opportunistic man who has found kindred spirits among the Iranian clerical establishment. Nelson gave one of the better speeches at the AFN assembly that confirmed Atleo's re-election, but only the naive and oafish could imagine things would today be better under a Chief Nelson - even if he did deliver the OPEC dollars, as he promised he would.
It's hard to imagine Atleo ever succeeding at selling Bill C-33, yet he could have done a much better job. He has a first-rate speech writer in Jennifer Brennan, and I like to think I know about that sort of thing, being a professional speech writer myself. But that's also the problem. When it came time to sway hearts and minds, Atleo spoke of Bill C-33 as a "bridge," in grand, aspirational terms. His critics saw only the familiar road which leads from the community straight to the Minister's office. The inspirational and aspirational modes, he may now be realizing, don't work.
The good news in all of this is also the bad news: life goes on. In some respects Bill C-33 will complete the circle begun in 1972. There will be, at last, a "First Nations Education Act," even if the First Nations control is, as critics urge, in name only. As we Indians have always done, we'll take advantage of opportunities and we'll adapt to and subvert and go around whatever obstacles are put in our place. The people who want to negotiate the terms and place of their citizenship within Canada will negotiate, and the sovereigntists will go on ignoring the AFN and the Indian Act, as far as possible. Along the way there are going to be arguments and skirmishes, over pipelines and tobacco and fracking and so forth.
What won't be resolved any time soon is the crucial question of who speaks for whom. Politics at the best of times is complicated, and in keeping with this principle, native communities are in many instances divided. On the surface there's grassroots consensus around honouring treaties, "respecting the relationship," and empowering communities. But the fact that Shawn Atleo and National Chief aspirant Pam Palmateer can both use this language and mean contrary things suggests the gap between aspirations and plans. A good deal of what the grassroots demand is past the posts: there will never be, to cite only one of many possible examples, legislation from the Crown affirming real political independence, much less sovereignty, of First Nations. In any case, political independence has prerequisites like physical and emotional health, education and economic security - and in each of these categories there is work to be done.
If any message has been delivered this week it's that this work is neither the job of the federal government nor the Assembly of First Nations. Both can have a supporting role to play, but the way out and forward must be found and sustained under the steam of the people who are directly involved. Shawn Atleo said as much to me over lunch. How strange that this principle brought him down.