Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Shawn Atleo’s recent resignation has definitely complicated the relationship between the First Nations and Canada. Mr. Atleo’s downfall can in part be blamed on his overall failure to effectively consult his constituency. As the leader of a national lobby group, he is beholden to its members – all the band chiefs who belong to the Assembly of First Nations – for his decisions.
The support that Mr. Atleo, and by extension the AFN, gave to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s education bill appears to have been undertaken without a consultative process. Mr. Atleo, and the AFN for that matter, has been acting more like a government for First Nations, rather than as their voice in Ottawa.
In recent days, voices in politics and the media have been referring to the AFN as if it were our national government. Some of these people have claimed that the “duty to consult” the Supreme Court has imposed on the federal government is problematic, if not downright dangerous for Canadian policy, at all levels of government, and for the country itself.
Mr. Atleo’s resignation certainly is a wake-up call for aboriginal and Canadian political leadership, that is true.
For aboriginal leaders, it is now apparent that their constituency demands to be consulted. The failure to undertake a consultative process will result in the aboriginal political elite being easily undermined and growing more dependent upon Ottawa for legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians. As it stands, many First Nations people do not support the AFN; they view it is as an extension of the Canadian state. While mouthing opposition to government agendas, the AFN is beholden to the state for its funding. Thus, its cries are viewed as meek, designed only to keep up appearances. The organization is essentially legitimating government-generated policies despite the opinions, beliefs and rights of the AFN’s claimed constituency.
For Canadian political leaders, the failure to consult First Nations in an effective and engaged manner is the more serious threat. First Nations people are tired of not being consulted when policy is drafted. Gone are the days when Canada could simply create legislation and impose it on First Nations by either ignoring their reactions or dealing with favourable political elites. Examples of the imposed legislation abound, the most obvious being the Indian Act. The birth and rapid growth of the Idle No More movement speaks to our demands to be consulted and taken seriously.
While the process of consultation with hundreds of First Nations concerning the redevelopment or revocation of the Indian Act or other policies such as education may appear daunting and perhaps time-consuming, such an action would signal government willingness to move forward positively. Everyone who has settled this country is regularly consulted, either as an individual or as part of a collective entity, by various levels of government when it comes to issues seen as important to them. Why should First Nations be confined and limited in the consultation process when it comes to policies and decisions that affect aboriginal and treaty rights?
We are not radicals or extreme activists for demanding consultation. We are a people demanding that our visions and dreams for a collective future be recognized and taken into account. For generations, Canadian governments of all stripes have, through their insistence on imposing an assimilationist agenda, failed to advance or alleviate the issues that continue to bedevil First Nations across Canada.
Perhaps the rejection of assimilation, integration or incorporation of First Nations into the state, as well as effective consultation, will finally generate improvements for First Nations peoples.
Karl Hele is a member of the Garden River First Nation community of the Anishinaabeg people and associate professor in Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs.