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National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo Visits Pikangikum

Thursday December 19, 2013
Submitted photo

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo (standing, right) speaks before Pikangikum community members on Nov. 27.

Assembly of First Nation’s National Chief Shawn A-in-chut-Atleo addressed a packed community centre in Pikangikum on Nov. 27 at the request of the community chief and council to advocate a new working relationship with the federal government and speak to its high school students.

Pikangikum Chief Paddy Peters opened the meeting with a sombre account of necessities such as clean water, power, and sewer that he said, “were promised years ago, but never happened.”

“The basic necessities for the health and safety of the community are at a standstill today,” he said, and the federal government has ignored repeated requests to meet. Peters held a large stack of letters that he says have been sent over the years.

Though Pikangikum battles with social problems, infrastructure, and classroom portables, this meeting highlighted that Pikangikum has big plans ahead. This was underscored by the full attendance of the high school students whose energy filled the centre, and it is that group of young people that the community is fighting hard for.

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative is Pikangikum’s answer to economic development and has been in refinement for 18 years. This Elder-driven project would be an environmentally sustainable forestry practice that would be owned and operated by Pikangikum. Just this year, they have been granted a forestry license, but the meeting highlighted the frustration with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development of Canada (AANDC), formerly known as INAC, who hold the keys to any economic development on Native land and refuse to meet with the First Nation or provide any funding.

Peters called on the National Chief to advance the concerns of the First Nation to the federal government.

Alex Peters, president of Whiteforest says, “INAC knows this will be a successful initiative. They know it will get us out of that INAC mentality.”

In a meeting that was conducted in both English and Ojibway, at times very sombre with frustrations, Peters pointed out with pride, “Pikangikum is an Ojibway speaking community . . . even the little ones can understand their language.”

When asked National Chief Atleo about what he saw as unique in Pikangkum, he said he was impressed with the retention of the language.

“It also comes with what most of southern Canada calls being isolated,” he said. “But Pikangikum is in the centre of their universe. Everyone else is isolated. And it’s the same way with my people feel from Ahousaht (British Columbia), where I come from. Because we’re in a so-called isolated community too.”

Atleo also spoke of many of the similarities.

“My village had over 65 suicide attempts and several completions in one calendar year. Pikangkum has experienced that, too. We experienced reaching out for support. So has Pikangikum.”

Pikangikum’s problems are not unique to First Nations across Canada, but if INAC allows the First Nation to go ahead with forestry, it could be a step to self-reliance, and with a new school being built for 2016, the community is fostering a new generation of hope. But this all comes from the resilience of the First Nation to work with a system that keeps them from true self-determination.

Asked if the federal government has moved beyond the assimilationist policies of White Paper, a 1969 attempt to abolish Native rights and the Indian Act, Atleo said, “In some respects you still see misunderstanding in what it means to support community control.”

“I’m not sure it’s ever really changed. I don’t think the understanding has necessarily ever changed but there are improvements in it. Our people are learning more, Canadians are learning more, young people are learning more and gaining a better sense of self-awareness . . . in some respects Canada has got to learn, but our people are going to drive the solutions. That’s where I get quite inspired and hopeful. And it’s not about relying on governments to do it.”

Atleo’s message of hard work ahead resonated with the young crowd. One brave student stood and asked, “What do you like about Pikangikum?”

“I like the pride you have here for your culture and your language . . . and you’re strong in your language and I love that,” Atleo replied. “It fills me up with inspiration.”
Atleo’s speech brought applause from the young crowd, who are oftentimes quite reticent, but his stories ring true and similar to the common experience of First Nations. The young people in Pikangikum are not blind to the problems of social inequity faced by their parents and Elders.

Atleo said it best that day: “My father said to me, ‘son, my grandfather caught three whales. And my grandpa was this tall,’” he says with his hand at his chin.

“Three whales! One as long as this room,” as he motions to the length of the full gymnasium that is home to ball hockey, dances, bingo games, court, council meetings, and dances. “Just eight people in a canoe. A 42-foot canoe built from a cedar tree. You can’t just do that from skill. You have to go to the Creator. You have to go the Creator, and you ask that whale to grab that harpoon because that’s the food!”

The young people of Pikangikum need that support and those stories to know that though it may be difficult there is a way forward.

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