An ‘amazing, inspiring accomplishment’
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo has been involved in some Idle No More rallies, and watching from the outside on others. But as he tells Wawatay’s Rick Garrick, through it all he has been inspired by what the grassroots people across the nation have accomplished so far.
Wawatay (WWT): How would you describe the Idle No More movement, and what it has done to date?
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo (SA): It is an amazing and inspiring accomplishment of coming together of our people, of the idea that we may be very diverse. In the events I have attended, it’s not just First Nations citizens, it’s been other indigenous peoples from the Metis and Inuit communities, it’s been mainstream Canadian citizens who are concerned and supportive.
I know that our leaders for decades have been struggling to have our issues be on the forefront of the national consciousness and there has always been a real thirst for our people to be helping to drive the change required. So I think all of those are incredibly important aspects — the idea of being very self-aware about the issues that face each and every single one of us as First Nations, as indigenous peoples.
WWT: How has leadership been trying to connect to grassroots people since the Idle No More movement took off?
SA: I know there has been deep respect for the grassroots nature of the movement — that is just that, it is a movement. So I know leaders have had discussions amongst themselves as well as with the grassroots about their place, welcoming invitations as I have when rallies have been held. I have been proud to march in support of the people as they have brought their messages to the public and to Parliament Hill. I’ve been thankful to speak with groups and have discussions with them about how we capture the old ways of inclusiveness and that leaders have always throughout the history of our peoples recognized that the strength of each leader is only matched by the willingness to listen and to follow what it is that the people want.
I believe that with the external imposition of things like the Indian Act, the disconnection of our people from their homelands, the artificial provincial and territorial boundaries that have been placed, and the lack of things like funding for homes and schools in our villages have helped to create divisions and that our people are saying we must be united in overcoming these divisions, including between ourselves and between the people and the leadership.
So this moment is an opportunity for us all to consider how it is that we continue to rebuild and strengthen our nations, to rebuild and strengthen the connections between our people as well as with leadership and the people, and using new ways to do that. I think it is a very powerful moment for all of our people to think about and act on — the reconnecting of our people and overcoming divisions we didn’t create.
WWT: Why do you think grassroots people feel the leadership has let them down?
SA: There is a shared sense of the frustration about moving forward and accomplishing the changes that are required that go back now really for decades if not generations. You’ll recall that back in 2010, the Auditor General at the time, Sheila Fraser, had finished doing a 10-year audit and said at the time that the conditions were getting worse in our communities. That Amnesty International released a report just two months ago that said there was “a grave human rights crisis facing First Nations in Canada.”
So while the rest of the world and the rest of the country is beginning to understand about our frustrations and challenges, our people have been feeling these frustrations for a long, long time. And right now First Nations leaders in each village and each community receive transfer payments, receive funding that is on a grant basis on the part of government, and receive this in a very arbitrary manner. So it’s created, I think, a very difficult cycle that has us really facing incredible difficulties to achieve change.
There’s been a pattern of finger pointing and blaming, especially on the part of governments to First Nations, for things like accountability. It still seems to be the pattern on the part of government to blame First Nations, when I witness First Nations leaders doing everything they can, every single day, very often being faced with really impossible decisions like whether to fund resources for clean drinking water when housing is required, or to have the school repaired when there is needs for child welfare funding. It’s been a near impossible pattern that we have been subjected to and I think all leaders have been making good faith efforts.
This movement is really the external extrusion of frustration that we’ve been feeling for a long time and in fact so many of us have known that especially with the growing youth population that this country needs to recognize that it must invest in those young people.
And for us as First Nations, it means finding a way to recognize and respect our diversity and to support one another in our efforts. That poses a challenge too, but it’s always something that the Elders encourage us to come back to.
WWT: What do you see in the future with Idle No More movement and some of the issues they have raised?
SA: One of the powers and strengths of Idle No More is its grassroots nature and raising awareness between and amongst all of us as First Nations citizens and as people of nations will continue to be very important. I believe that this momentum and the strength of our people standing up will continue until the day when we feel that our rights are being recognized, respected and implemented, until the day when our people are enjoying a standard of living that we know that we deserve, when we receive a fair share of the wealth and resources of our lands, when our children are supported to learn their language and culture, when those most vulnerable, especially the women and children and Elders, that they feel safe and secure in their homes and in their communities, and when our nations are being rebuilt in a manner that reflects our history.
I think that we have reached a tipping point or turning point at this juncture and should all be thankful for it. Of course it’s challenging, because achieving real change, it must be challenging. And we must be prepared to rise to the occasion, to accept the challenges that pushing for change demands of all of us. Becoming aware of our own rights and responsibilities is really the important first step and then acting on those to take care of both our territories and to take care of each other within our communities becomes most critical, recapturing those laws and re-implementing them and knowing that no outside government, including a Canadian government, they can’t and will not stand in the way of our people exercising our rights and our laws.
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