CALGARY – The Assembly of First Nations has chosen a fresh-faced, worldly man with a reverence for traditional ways to be its next leader.
Shawn Atleo at age 42 is the first national leader from British Columbia in 33 years. And apparently he’s also a pretty good soccer player.
Long-time friend, Chief Bruce Underwood from Paquachin First Nation in Sidney, B.C., remembers playing with Atleo a decade ago.
A lot of the attributes Atleo displayed on the field will serve him well in his new job, Underhill said with a laugh.
“He’s very sports-minded, a team player and goal-oriented obviously, which is what you want in a leader.”
Married to wife Nancy for the past 23 years and with two adult children, Tyson and Tara, he was named “A-in-chut” and seated by his people as hereditary chief of the house of Glakishpiitl of the Ahousaht First Nation in 1999. Before announcing his plans to run for national chief, he travelled home to seek the blessing of fellow chiefs, elders and community members.
“At times we face challenges in life and we’re always reminded by the elders to remember the creator. Go to the spiritual realm for that strength, for that support,” Atleo said Thursday in his acceptance speech.
“Thank goodness. I grew up with grannies and aunties who were always ready to waggle a finger and say, ‘Nephew, we need you to be careful where you are headed – woo – life is full of danger.”‘
“How privileged am I. How grateful am I that as a grandson, that I am here with my granny. How grateful am I to have been married for 23 years to a wonderful woman, Nancy, who saw some potential in me.”
Atleo earned a master’s of education in adult learning and global change from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, in partnership with the University of British Columbia, University of the Western Cape, South Africa, and University of Linkoping, Sweden.
He was installed as the first chancellor of Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C., the first aboriginal from that province to be named to such a role.
He was also the executive director of a First Nations family addictions treatment facility and was managing director of a private, aboriginal post-secondary training institute, Umeek Human Resource Development.
“He’s a very good friend. He’s a good role model. He blends in his culture with his family values and his education and his political life,” said Chief Ivan Wayne Morris, Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay, B.C.
“He shows he has a reverence for the old ways but has blended in with the new ways, of course, but he never forgets where he came from.”
Like his predecessor Phil Fontaine, Atleo has spent time on the international stage, participating in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He also led a delegation to support the recovery and rebuilding of indigenous communities following the tsunami in Indonesia and marched in Gwalior, India, to advocate for 80 million landless indigenous people.
He talks of his people returning to “healthy, economically sustainable and balanced communities, with everyone having a say, sharing responsibility and a role, and all able to pursue educational, work and entrepreneur dreams.”
Fontaine is optimistic about Atleo’s leadership.
“He’s young, he’s energetic, although I could hold my own with Shawn on a run,” Fontaine, an ardent runner, said with a chuckle.
“He’s a good person and I am very optimistic that our issues are in good hands.”