PHIL Fontaine knows what Shawn Atleo went through. The former chief of the Assembly of First Nations did not seek re-election while his successor was essentially forced from office. But both men were and are participants in changing times. Both came to realize that a radicalized approach to improving First Nations’ fortunes will not accomplish more than alienating potential public support. Both have tried to be pragmatic in dealing with Canada and its business sectors in hopes of involving First Nations more directly in the national economy. But the resentment among many First Nations over a history of watching progress literally pass them by on the lands of northern Canada means reaching an accommodation is scarred with mistrust.
First Fontaine and then Atleo tried to weave a narrative of dialogue into aboriginal affairs and both were met with resistance. But Fontaine’s initial work and Atleo’s followup have resonated with some local and regional chiefs while others remain defiant. That defiance caused Atleo enough discomfort to cause him to leave office in the interest of preserving it with some hope.
Atleo will find his way to new methods of advancing First Nations’ causes while Fontaine has been at it since he completed his third term as national chief and embarked on his own new way.
Fontaine has found it in corridors that some of his First Nations colleagues find distasteful. But Fontaine is convinced that working within the system is better than butting heads with it.
Fontaine was recently booed by a critic who interrupted a speech he gave to chastise him for working with proponents of the Energy East pipeline. Fontaine acknowledges he is advancing the interests of TransCanada Corp., while explaining that at the same time he is advising the company on how to support First Nations communities and businesses.
He told an energy and the environment conference in Calgary last week that attitudes are shifting amongst aboriginal people when it comes to resource development. First Nations leaders who understand the opportunities frequently discuss equity stakes or joint venture deals and many see working with the private sector as a “viable option,” Fontaine said.
But they, and he, and Atleo, insist that industry players must acknowledge First Nations have the right to say no to resource projects on the land they live on. As has been evident in recent years, some players on both sides approach this requirement with different expectations. But it is the successful ones who find a way through viewpoints that are inherently different to reach agreements for the benefit of all concerned.
Fontaine and Atleo can take credit for laying the groundwork for compromise in the interest of progress that many thought would never come. Their work will be continued by others who look ahead.