By Vincent McDermott
Fort McMurray Today
While development has improved the lives of many aboriginals in Canada, Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations says disputes over treaty rights is the result of ignorance and neglect from industry and government.
However, Atleo believes Canada’s aboriginals and the resource economy are on the cusp of a transformation.
“We’re adjacent to every natural resource potential in this country,” said Atleo, who was speaking at an event hosted by the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Businesses at MacDonald Island Park. “This is the time to have those conversations, conversations seen as too complex.”
Atleo, who comes from Ahousat, B.C., drew parallels between Wood Buffalo and other aboriginal communities who have been economically uplifted by resource development. However, he also reminded the audience that aboriginals were forced to adapt to new economies thrust upon them.
“It wasn’t a choice early on because those systems were thrust on us, similar to how it was with many First Nations on major natural resource development, including oilsands,” he said. “This has been our reality.”
Atleo also commended Chiefs Jim Boucher and Allan Adam for bringing the issue of treaty rights into the public sphere and challenging proposals they deemed harmful to their territories.
“Canada stands on a foundation of non-recognition, and they’ll say that to any First Nations through their department of justice lawyers in a court of law,” he said.
“Many will dismiss it and say, “That’s the way it works in the courts. It’s by and large conflict filled.You fight.’ Well, that’s not what the treaties envisioned it.”
He also praised them for encouraging members of their communities to become entrepreneurs.
“When chiefs step forward and stand up and say ‘We’re prepared, we’re not opposed to development, just not supportive of development at any cost,’ there’s hard principles in place. Those must be honoured and respected.”
Atleo chose to focus on the role of aboriginals in the economy, reminding guests that Alberta’s high labour shortage and First Nation’s high unemployment are problems that can solve each other.
However, he also reminded guests of the struggles aboriginals have already overcome, such as the Canada’s infamous residential schools.
He also mused on the irony that, as he attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral with Canada’s official delegation, Canada had worked so hard to free a man who was imprisoned for fighting Apartheid, which was inspired by Canada’s Indian Act.
“That’s the kind of influence that this country’s relationship with First Nations has had,” he said. “Now, there’s an opportunity to turn that around.”