Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chief's illness won't derail talks: minister

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OTTAWA -- A sudden medical leave announced Monday by the head of Canada's largest aboriginal organization will delay -- but not derail -- pivotal talks between First Nations and Stephen Harper, says Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Duncan said there's little hope a one-on-one meeting between Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo can still take place by Jan. 24 -- a date that was floated during their contentious meetings last week.

The two leaders had agreed to talk to their respective teams and regroup soon in order to set out a concrete plan to implement the agreements reached last week on re-examining ancient treaties and aboriginal rights.

Duncan said he does not expect Atleo to return to work for at least another two weeks. Still, he said, backroom work on the agreements reached last Friday will continue as planned, involving top officials from the government and the Assembly of First Nations.

"No one has got certainty for when the national chief will return, but I took it that it would be at least two weeks away," Duncan said. "But we were thinking... it would be at least that long before any further meeting got underway."

Atleo announced Monday his doctor has ordered him to take a "brief" sick leave despite the AFN being in the midst of a political crisis, with some chiefs and First Nations citizens questioning the group's authority.

Atleo came down with the flu before Christmas and never had a chance to beat it, said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief for British Columbia and one of the key AFN officials tasked with mapping out how to implement the agreements with Harper to revisit treaty and aboriginal rights. She said Atleo could return in a matter of days.

Atleo said the meetings and frustrations over the past two weeks simply caught up with him.

"This weekend, my doctor ordered that I take some time now to rest and recover, and I have agreed with my family that I do this now," he said in a statement.

"I will see you all very soon and will return re-invigorated and strengthened to work with you to drive this change together with all of you."

After a week of intense meetings, Atleo had managed to pull together a consensus on what topics the meeting should address. But he was not able to persuade Harper to have Gov. Gen. David Johnston attend -- a key demand of a faction of chiefs, including fasting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 A8

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