News Canada

Discontent at First Nations meeting 0

KRISTY KIRKUP, Parliamentary Bureau
TORONTO - 

If the rhetoric from the stage of the Assembly First Nations meeting in Toronto was any indication, the Stephen Harper government is in for a long, drawn-out battle with First Nations groups.

Would-be leaders spent the day Tuesday outdoing each other in distancing themselves from the current federal regime.

"Anybody here afraid of Stephen Harper? You elect me, we will reverse the budget cuts. I guarantee you that," boasted former Manitoba chief Terrance Nelson, suggesting First Nations leaders need to consider bold measures -- such as more and bigger blockades -- if the Conservative government doesn't respond to demands.

"A lot of people believe my middle name is blockade," said Nelson.

He is one of eight candidates vying for the leadership of the AFN. More than 600 First Nations chiefs have gathered in Toronto for a meeting and election Wednesday that appears bound to dramatically alter the relationship between aboriginals and the federal government for the next three years.

B.C.'s Shawn Atleo, the incumbent head of the AFN, hoping to keep his job by focusing especially on aboriginal education, was repeatedly hammered by other candidates Monday for his perceived cozy relationship with the Harper government.

Ryerson University professor Pamela Palmater, one of the contenders, said Atleo has turned the AFN into the "Assembly of Assimilation."

Proposed resource development projects through First Nations territory, highlighted by the very controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline in British Columbia, are at the heart of native discontent.

"No more of this mining stuff. It is killing our people," said candidate and former Oka spokeswoman Ellen Gabriel. "Enough. Where is the peaceful coexistence?"

In his address to the chiefs Tuesday, Atleo suggested the AFN has been forced to do "more with less" because of budget cuts. But he said chiefs should focus on addressing issues including the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

"This is a moment of reckoning," Atleo said. "The moment demands our full attention ... we are strong together."

Kristy.Kirkup@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @kkirkup


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