Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Schism weakens cause

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The emergence of a new national aboriginal organization is a clear expression of the frustration and anger that exists among many native groups in the country. If old military principles are any guide, however, dividing the troops before an offensive probably is not the wisest move.

Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and one of the prime movers of the new National Treaty Alliance, says he wants a stronger approach to asserting treaty rights than the Assembly of First Nations provides. He also claims the AFN under Shawn Atleo has not been aggressive in pursuing aboriginal goals, particularly the elimination of the Indian Act. He also says Chief Atleo's organization lacks the authority to negotiate on behalf of First Nations or to speak on treaties on a "nation-to-nation basis."

The problem, of course, is that Chief Nepinak has even less authority. Only 85 chiefs out of more than 600 in the country attended the meeting in northern Saskatchewan when the new group was established, and many of those split their time with an AFN conference that was held concurrently.

There's no question Chief Nepinak represents a widespread point of view, but it is just one perspective among many.

There is a common misperception that Canada's aboriginals are a homogeneous group with common problems and demands. In fact, they speak more than 50 languages and their issues are as diverse as those of Canadians in general. The problems of First Nations in remote areas of northern Manitoba and Ontario, for example, are not the same as those of bands on the West Coast or of reserves that are adjacent to urban areas. Some have rich sources of revenue while others are destitute.

There also is the question of who represents the large number of so-called non-status urban Indians who may not have a home reserve, but who clearly are aboriginal in terms of background and self-identification.

Chief Nepinak's nascent group attracted followers mainly from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and parts of Ontario and Alberta, but there's no evidence that most aboriginal chiefs in those provinces support the breakaway group.

There is even less data on where ordinary aboriginals stand on the emerging schism.

The new group got off to a weak start by threatening to issue a deadline to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a meeting or risk a national campaign of some sort.

Ottawa needs to move quicker to resolve some of the more urgent aboriginal challenges, but the job will be even more difficult if the country's First Nations can not work together as a single, powerful force.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2013 A8

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