By Lorne Gunter, QMI Agency
Nasty internal politics, competing ideologies and an ambitious loser, that is what's behind rival First Nations national conventions this week.
While the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) -- the official voice of Canada's aboriginal citizens -- holds its annual meeting in Whitehorse, a dissident (and far more radical) group is holding an angry counter gathering on the Onion Lake reserve that straddles the Saskatchewan- Alberta border.
The Onion Lake meeting is made up mostly of Idle No More activists and supporters of Pam Palmater, a former federal bureaucrat who currently heads the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Toronto's Ryerson University and was one of the most visible faces of last winter's Idle No More protests.
Palmater, significantly, is also the loser of last summer's election for AFN grand chief. Even though she finished a distant second to current AFN head Shawn Atleo, Palmater and her supporters have never accepted the results.
Wallace Fox, one of Palmater's biggest backers, is also the chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, host of the meeting competing with the AFN annual gathering.
Fox, too, was reported to be involved in a move last January to overthrow Atleo.
While Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was holding her fake hunger strike in Ottawa, Atleo agreed to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss a way forward on aboriginal concerns. But because Atleo refused to make Harper come to him, and because Atleo would not insist the PM acquiesce to First Nations' demands in advance, many of the more radical aboriginal leaders, like Fox, refused to sanction the meeting.
When Atleo subsequently fell ill, the radicals pounced in an effort to replace Atleo with Palmater. The differences between the rival camps are critical to understanding the two competing views of our First Nations' future.
The Atleo camp is made up mostly of pragmatists, leaders who see economic development as the only path out of despair for aboriginal Canadians. They are conscious of treaty rights and land claims, but are equally interested in finding ways to take advantage of reserves' natural resources or proximity to non-aboriginal markets.
The Palmater camp could more accurately be termed the Cult of Victimhood. They believe whites and white governments are responsible for everything that ails First Nations. Like '60s hippies, they see "the man" as the source of all their ills; if only "the man" would stop being so mean to them, all their troubles would evaporate.
The group gathering at Onion Lake, which calls itself the National Treaty Alliance, does not believe Canadian law applies on their lands. (Fine, then let them forego welfare from Canadian governments and show passports at border crossings every time they want to leave reserves to go shopping.)
They are strong advocates of rail and road blockades and national days of action. And they are purveyors of endless complaints and weavers of myths about constant maltreatment by politicians, bureaucrats and non-aboriginal companies, even as they receive (and largely misspend) billions annually in federal, provincial and corporate assistance.
Atleo and the bulk of AFN chiefs want "a new institution through the PMO or the Privy Council Office to look at the implementation and enforcement of treaties," more aboriginal schools and a new law to replace the Indian Act, which they see as archaic and overly collectivist.
Let's hope the Atleo camp prevails.