Ending a nine-year leadership, departing Assembly of First Nations head Phil Fontaine instructed his successor to eradicate First Nations poverty as a top priority.
But now that Shawn Atleo has taken over the reigns, the hostilities between Aboriginals and mainstream Canada over some 900 outstanding land claims should be an equal priority.
The ostrich syndrome has historically plagued Ottawa when it comes to dealing with native issues. The 42-year old Atleo, who defeated Perry Bellegarde by a narrow margin, believes both the federal and provincial governments “continue to operate from a position of non-recognition,” according to his platform communiqué.
The latest confrontation between the Canadian Border Services agency and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne at the Eastern Ontario border crossing highlights the urgency for government to end the foot dragging. Mohawk warriors burned bonfires around the CBSA compound. They wore intimidating camouflage and had a bulldozer on hand, ready to swarm in and disarm the officers if the CBSA proceeded with the arming of its officers.
It was a travesty for federal border agents to be chased out of office by such lawlessness. The Canadian public is tired of: The invariable specter of violence in tense standoffs, blockades, cars set ablaze and looming threats, all driven on by rogue Aboriginal activists, not necessarily supported by their own communities.
No one wants violence or another Ipperwash. Governments are our elected representatives, obligated to control civic unrest for the safety of its citizens. A solution demands that we must start from a position of mutual respect, and Chief Atleo has his work cut out for him as new leader of the Assembly of First Nations.
As a businessman and chancellor of Vancouver Island University, he has touted himself as a bridge builder, regional politician and champion of unity.
He has warned that “division is the enemy of our people and the one weapon that can cast a fatal blow.” The majority of AFN chiefs and Aboriginal progressives see education and peaceful demonstrations as the best way to inform mainstream Canada of the plight of First Nation peoples.
Beyond this, both the federal and provincial jurisdictions need to sit down at the negotiating table with Aboriginal leaders. Dragging heels on the issue is objectionable given the heightened frustrations on both sides. The only other option is to await bloodshed.