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Atleo could never win, and maybe that was the point

But has Harper divided and conquered once too often?

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

May 2, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has likely always known that today was lurking. The office of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which Atleo held before resigning from it on Friday, is one where failure has set up shop in the hallways. To lead the AFN today is to lead an institution beholden to two sets of masters, both of whom are unhappy. Pander to one side’s interests too much and you anger the other, and pay for it. Atleo is paying for it. The question is if Canada will as well.
On one side are the more than 600 individual First Nations in Canada, which comprise an ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity as rich as those numbers suggest. The European Union, with 28 member nations, struggles to reach agreement; the AFN, in comparison, has several magnitudes more cultural complexity and distance, yet far smaller resources. Add to this the legacy of residential schools, Treaties, and the chief and council system created by the Indian Act, which gives the AFN its legal power, and the organization could be one of the most complex to run on the planet.
On the other side are Ottawa and the Aboriginal and Northern Affairs bureaucracy. This is where the bulk of the AFN and its member First Nations’ resources come from. This master is highly focused on building a resource economy, and increasingly quick to mete out financial sanctions if the AFN or other aboriginal groups become too critical of that goal.
Between these masters stands the national chief of the AFN. In good times, many see him as a ceremonial head; in bad times, such as today – with pressures on environmental protection and land seeing First Nations feeling backed into a corner – many First Nation peoples see him as Ottawa’s puppet, a symptom of an unhealthy relationship that has robbed them of political power. Each move the AFN’s chief makes to represent aboriginal interests, while also playing the diplomat so as to not offend Ottawa, reminds many First Nations of just how much they resent the situation. Each time Atleo tried to sharpen his rhetoric to better represent his constituents’ concerns, Ottawa can slap his wrists and even cut money to First Nations organizations.
This dynamic has worked in favour of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. It is easy to conquer First Nation opposition to increased access to natural resources, often located in aboriginal territory, by stoking internal divisions. And that’s why the granular details of Atleo’s resignation – his support of the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, and the rise of opposition to the bill from five regional aboriginal organizations – aren’t really the issue. What happened to Atleo was bound to happen, by Ottawa’s design.
The ensuing reportage of Atleo’s resignation will likely focus on the divisions between him and the other chiefs, portraying these rifts as emblematic of a disorganized ‘aboriginal Canada.’ But the real question is how Atleo’s departure benefits Canada as a whole? The AFN has been damaged, its diplomatic and moderate head is looking for a new job, the Conservatives’ proposed education bill has few remaining champions amongst the group it purports to benefit and in the ensuing power vacuum, several chiefs, who lead regional organizations dead-set against Ottawa’s resources agenda, are rising to prominence.
Have the Conservatives divided and conquered one too many times?

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