Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

AFN chiefs embrace conciliatory approach

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Shawn Atleo adopted a tougher tone when thanking the 341 supporters who re-elected him national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, warning the AFN under his leadership will either open doors, or kick them down. But that clearly was to soothe the impatient element in the hall.

The election Wednesday was a resounding rejection of the intemperate style of the likes of Manitoba's Terry Nelson, who failed to top 34 votes, lost support and fell away after two ballots. Mr. Atleo, known for his conciliatory approach to negotiations with government, established a formidable lead early, but needed three ballots for the required 60 per cent support.

Mr. Atleo can show a record of real progress since his election in 2009. His January summit with government ministers produced an agreement that will see predictable, multi-year funding deals struck with Ottawa in exchange for governance reforms to ensure accountability. That was decried by Manitoba chiefs, who felt it was done without their consultation. A national review on improving First Nations schools and education outcomes was similarly criticized by Saskatchewan chiefs.

Mr. Atleo, a British Columbia hereditary chief, sees good education as a way to break the cycle of dependency on reserves. And he has a plan to boost economic development in those communities. The Supreme Court has said governments have a duty to meaningfully consult First Nations before permitting resource development on traditional territory. Mr. Atleo says that falls short of the mark. On Thursday he reiterated remarks made in March to Calgary business leaders that First Nations expect Canada to hold to the test set by the UN declaration of indigenous rights, and secure the "free, prior and informed consent" of those with traditional claims.

Co-operation of native bands is proving increasingly important to the development of mines, pipelines and hydro projects. Provinces control development licences and the federal government must sign off on environmental protections. Without clear protocol for ensuring First Nations claims are respected, development grinds to a halt.

Mr. Atleo's demand for consent, rather than consultation, challenges governments and corporations to ensure First Nations communities and residents are real participants in development plans. That does not mean ceding control, nor must it translate into dependency of a different kind. It should improve economies through community job training and co-investment -- dividends that continue to pay long after the mines fall silent.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2012 A12

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