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New native alliance urged

Manitoba chiefs at odds with AFN

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OTTAWA -- The Assembly of First Nations has scheduled a national treaty forum for next month, but it may be a fruitless exercise as chiefs in Manitoba and possibly elsewhere are on track to bar the AFN from further work on treaties.

The forum, set for March 27 and 28 at the Whitecap Dakota First Nation near Saskatoon, was advocated by Manitoba chiefs when they met at a special assembly in January after the highly controversial meeting between the AFN and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak told the Free Press Monday he will attend only to deliver a message.

"The ideal situation would be to go to the treaty forum and serve notice that there is a move to remove the mandate of the AFN on treaties," he said.

Nepinak said that since the Jan. 11 meeting between AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and Harper, Atleo has had letters from chiefs expressing a lack of confidence in his leadership. The buzz among Manitoba chiefs has been to dump the AFN, if not completely, at least on negotiating and implementing treaties, Nepinak said.

"I've got a lot of chiefs pushing me to begin a new treaty nations alliance," he said.

He said such an alliance would take a far more fundamentalist position on treaties and not be steamrolled by the policies and unilateral actions of the federal government.

It also would weaken the AFN by taking away one of its most critical jobs and could be the first step toward withdrawing from it.

"Treaties are fundamental," said Nepinak. "In time, I think it would be likely a global move away from the structure of the AFN."

The rift in the AFN began showing last summer when Atleo was running for re-election after serving his first term. He succeeded, but many of his opponents were not happy. They feared he was too tight with the government and not willing to take a hard enough stand on issues such as treaty implementation, resource revenue-sharing and poverty.

Atleo's influence was questioned in January before the Jan. 11 meeting. Right after New Year's, Atleo wrote to Harper asking for an urgent treaty meeting with chiefs, Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

The request came amid the growing Idle No More movement and the ongoing liquid-diet protest of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence. Harper responded by agreeing to a meeting without Johnston at the prime minister's office building, with limited room for chiefs to attend.

Atleo agreed, but Spence said without Johnston's presence, it wouldn't be enough to end her protest. Dozens of chiefs from across the country backed Spence and refused to participate. In the end, Manitoba was one of three jurisdictions that had nobody at the meeting.

Nepinak said the damage Atleo caused by going ahead with the meeting was immense.

"He showed more of a commitment to the prime minister than to his people," Nepinak said. "That permanently fractured the AFN. It showed who was on whose side when push came to shove."

Atleo's spokesman said he was unavailable to comment Monday.

The AFN is the national lobby organization representing more than 600 First Nations across Canada.

Nepinak said the issue of the treaty alliance will be raised next week at an AMC meeting, and when how it would work is established, he will seek support for it from more chiefs in Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2013 A6

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