Gunter

Engagement trumps the victim card

By Lorne Gunter, Edmonton Sun

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, speaks to the media at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa Jan. 10, 2013. (Andre Forget/QMI Agency)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, speaks to the media at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa Jan. 10, 2013. (Andre Forget/QMI Agency)

Shawn Atleo is riding a tiger.

The 46-year-old national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) came to office in 2009 as a pragmatic reformer. A specialist in aboriginal education, Atleo said all the right things after winning his position in a gruelling 20-hour, eight-ballot marathon.

Atleo proclaimed a new “post-apology era” in First Nations’ relations with governments. After Ottawa had apologized for the residential schools legacy, Atleo said it was time to get beyond pointing fingers of blame and get on with the long, hard slog of making Canada’s First Peoples economically and politically stable.

Victimology — the First Nations political culture of blaming everyone else for aboriginal Canadians’ plight and waiting for someone else to fix the problems — was a dead end and Atleo knew it.

As the first aboriginal chancellor of a university in B.C. and a key negotiator of a new resource deal for First Nations with the B.C. government, Atleo understood that there was no point fighting the dominant culture. Engagement was more constructive.

And he still seems to believe that. In the past year, Atleo has often said that Canada plans $500 billion in resource development in the coming decades. Much of this will occur on or near First Nations land. So the best way to lift aboriginal communities out of despair is for governments, resource companies and First Nations to find ways to share that wealth.

But the AFN is at least half made up of chiefs devoted to victimhood. They draw very comfortable salaries while demanding more money and more power, then are incensed by calls for more accountability to go along with it.

The we-are-victims lobby within the AFN holds that almost none of First Peoples’ troubles are of their own making, so consequently the solutions must come from someone and somewhere else — usually from taxpayers through guilt-ridden governments.

So occasionally Atleo is stuck playing the victim card just to preserve his position. Occasionally he feels the need to voice the misplaced belief that non-aboriginal Canadians don’t honour their treaty obligations and don’t give aboriginals enough money or self-determination.

(Here’s a little hint for the victimologists: Self-determination and self-government come with self-sufficiency. So long as you see others as the roots of all your problems, your problems will persist.)

Monday, the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation — the decree issued by George III at the end of the Seven Years War, when England took over France’s North American colonies — Atleo played the blame game, a little.

The Royal Proclamation is often held up now as a guarantee of First Nations’ sovereignty. And it was, but only kind of. The proclamation did protect aboriginal rights in what are now Quebec, Ontario, Appalachia and Florida, but only from the advance of settlers. It did not restrict the rights of the Crown in those regions.

Atleo said that on the anniversary of this important document, it was crucial that Canada honour the contents of its treaties with First Nations “as First Nations people understand them.”

Talk about constantly shifting goalposts. That’s like saying that courts must honour all lawsuits as the people who claim to be victims in them understand them. Where is the sense or fairness in that?

The Royal Proclamation does call for respect for First Nations, their dignity and independence, but under the ultimate authority of the Crown.

That seems like a good formula today. It’s not a blank cheque written on taxpayers’ bank accounts, but rather a call for mutual respect and co-operation among peoples — aboriginal and non-aboriginal — who are all subject, ultimately, to Canadian law.

 


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