Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue 22 - Evidence - December 2, 2009
OTTAWA, Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met this day at 6 p.m. to
study the federal government's constitutional, treaty, political and legal
responsibilities to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and other matters
generally relating to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada (topic: Assembly of First
Nations overview of issues and priorities).
Senator Gerry St. Germain (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good evening. I would like to welcome all honourable
senators, members of the public and viewers across the country who are watching
these proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on CPAC
or on the World Wide Web. I am Gerry St. Germain from British Columbia, and I
have the honour of chairing this committee.
The mandate of this committee is to examine legislation and matters relating
to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada generally. This gives the committee a broad
scope to look into issues of all types that touch on matters of concern to First
Nations, Metis and Inuit.
The purpose of the public portion of today's meeting is to obtain a briefing
from the Assembly of First Nations in which they will set out their current
priorities and most pressing concerns. After we have had time for questions, we
will proceed to an in-camera session during which we will consider our draft
Before I welcome our witnesses, please allow me to introduce our members.
On my left is the deputy chair of the committee, Nick Sibbeston, from the
Northwest Territories; next to him is Senator Nancy Greene Raine, from British
Columbia; next to Senator Raine is Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, from New
Brunswick; next to Senator Lovelace Nicholas is Senator Elizabeth Hubley, from
Prince Edward Island. One I can never forget is the former Mayor of Vancouver,
Senator Larry Campbell, of British Columbia. We have Senator Carolyn Stewart
Olsen, from New Brunswick; Senator Sharon Carstairs, from Manitoba; and Senator
Pana Merchant, from Saskatchewan. It is nice to have all of you here.
Members of the committee, please help me in welcoming our witness this
evening, Mr. Shawn Atleo, newly elected, recently elected National Chief of the
Assembly of First Nations. Mr. Atleo, on behalf of the members, I wish to
congratulate you again on your recent election to your current position.
Please proceed with your presentation. I am sure senators will have questions
to ask afterwards.
Shawn Atleo, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations: Thank you. It
is a privilege to be here. Thank you very much for the invitation to appear this
evening to talk about what is possible.
I arrive in this committee meeting just over four months into my new role as
national chief, the privilege and honour bestowed in the election that took all
night long in Calgary not that long ago. I and a number of other candidates
joined together to express our strong commitment to improving the conditions and
lives of our people.
Over the last four months, it has been my great privilege to be invited to
many communities across the country. I am joined here by some wonderful
colleagues — Karen Campbell is to my left and Bonnie Leask is sitting behind me.
Together, along with our national executive and colleagues, we have arrived here
this evening on the eve of a national assembly next week having essentially
pulled together an internal strategic plan, which I will share with you today.
We will bring it forward to the chiefs in a much more detailed and thorough
discussion next week when the gathering of our national assembly occurs.
I want to open by thanking you, senator, for your congratulations. I come
here looking not only to share the work we are undertaking but to reflect on the
work of this committee, the important work of the past. There are many efforts I
can point to. The Specific Claims Tribunal Act stands out for me because I was
directly involved in work leading up to that act coming to fruition, an
important joint exercise between government and First Nations that stands out as
As I share a few thoughts here, I want to ask the question of how we can work
more closely together between First Nations and governments. The upcoming
assembly theme is "First Nations Crown Relations.'' The very essence of the
original relationship, as was expressed through treaties, was one of mutual
respect, mutual recognition that we all would share in the wealth and bounty of
the land, that we never forget the sacrifices that were made on the fields of
war, whether it was the Mi'kmaq people or the Maliseets in the Atlantic, the
Mohawks and the Metis relatives who also were there, shoulder to shoulder, with
Canadians in wars of the past.
Really, we arrive here at a conversation about specific issues but also about
the potential of this country and the relationships between peoples and
overcoming deep chasms of misunderstanding that were well articulated by the
Prime Minister when he rose in the House of Commons and said that what happened
in the residential school era should have never happened; it was wrong and we
will ensure that it never happens again. That was a history we all reflect on
that has caused dire consequences. It was also a history done under the guise of
I come to you suggesting strongly that we should, then, consider education as
being one of the prominent tools to use in lighting the fire of the spirit in
our people for their potential and that every person in our communities richly
deserves the potential to succeed in life. If education in the past was used as
a tool to take people from language, culture and family, the tool is now used to
support the reconnection with culture, language and family and, at the same
time, to support people to succeed in life, whether it is pursuing the trades or
going into the college or university system.
I sense that, given the moment that we are in, after that work was done, that
whole agreement was arrived at, we are now on the cusp of entering into the
truth and reconciliation work, work that my former colleague and the former
national chief so courageously shared with this country about the history of
residential schools. We are now in a moment to reflect on what we can do going
forward to ensure our people succeed and that we do the hard work of
reconciliation, which requires working closely together.
Four key themes have been developed by working with and speaking with our
people, and these will be brought forward to the assembly next week. The first
is supporting First Nations families. I believe decks have been passed around to
the senators, and so I want to reflect on this only briefly because you have the
In the area of First Nations families, with education as an anchor for
reconciliation and supporting families, we focus on health outcomes and supports
in community capacity to work on health promotion and prevention rather than
crisis management. We need to break this pattern of lurching from crisis to
In H1N1 experience, I really appreciated both the Minister of Health and the
Minister of Indian Affairs signing a communication protocol to ensure that the
best and most timely information is reaching our communities. I am pleased with
the progress made in responding to the issue of H1N1, but we have more to do.
H1N1 stands as a bit of an example of the broad health challenges that we face,
the chronic diseases, such as diabetes and tuberculosis, and many other issues
that we face, such as child welfare. That certainly is something that we all
share responsibility for. However, we look to governments to shoulder this
responsibility with us to ensure our children are safe and have equitable access
to programs and services. We know that our population is the most youthful of
any demographic in the country. We are an exploding, youthful population.
The second key theme is exercising and implementing rights. Rights are
enshrined in the Constitution, recognition of Aboriginal title rights and treaty
rights. Treaty rights are as valid today as the day they were signed. If it was
in Mi'kmaq territories, that was over 260 years ago. Treaties were upheld in
courts of law and decisions like the Marshall decision.
We need to consider tangible ways to move our work forward. Examples of how
to do this have been raised, such as an office of a national treaty
commissioner. We have spoken briefly about using the specific claims joint
policy renewal approach and looking at the comprehensive claims policy, which
impacts all First Nations. In particular, it impacts those First Nations that
are in negotiations in various parts of the country. I would table that as a
thought for this committee to consider. It builds on the good work that we have
done on the specific claims process.
Third, the economy and the environment strongly intersect. There is the idea
that we have significant challenges. I would be honoured to go to Copenhagen to
join the thousands of people looking to come together to try to reconcile our
relationship with the environment. How will we address the issues of climate
change? The issue of climate change was one my late grandfather was able to
clearly demonstrate to me as a boy, when I was in my home territories, well
before these issues made international headlines or were described by scientists
or talked about by other professionals like engineers.
It also has to do with building strong economies. As I have travelled across
this country, I have seen some incredible situations with First Nations pursuing
full economic self-sufficiency, expressing a strong focus on the part of their
governments to become economically self-sufficient and then using the resources
to ensure they are addressing the infrastructure and social service needs in
their communities and to ensure the threatened languages are supported.
The economy and the environment strongly go together. First Nations want to
play a leadership role in contributing not only to the economy but also to a
sustainable economy and one that cares for the environment.
Fourth, it is about supporting First Nation governments and looking at,
perhaps, asking this committee to consider the relationship between First Nation
governments and the federal government — the fiscal arrangements that currently
exist. Many First Nations chiefs have expressed challenges to me. The funding
relationship is such that they have to choose between essential services, one
over the other, when all essential services are essential and must be supported.
There is a significant challenge that we all face, and First Nations chiefs come
to me and speak amongst themselves about it. Next week, they will be raising
this, as well.
We also need to look at removing barriers the Indian Act imposes on our
communities. It is important to identify those regulatory barriers. I know this
committee has been working on the issue of elections. It is something the
Assembly of First Nations recognizes, and we seek to support First Nations who
are looking to reform the process around elections. There is the idea of
alternative dispute mechanisms.
Finally, most recently, First Nation governments are viewing issues like
citizenship through a jurisdictional lens or a treaty lens — that is, the treaty
right to define who is citizen of a nation.
I am sharing with you these ideas and looking to intersect with the
legislative agenda in the House of Commons as well as looking to this committee
to consider how it is that we can shift our working relationship to one that is
exemplified by the specific claims process where we jointly determine together,
on a nation-to-nation basis, between First Nations and the government, how to
most effectively move forward together.
Thank you for allowing me the time to join you here. I look forward to a
conversation about how we can work together.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Grand Chief Atleo, for that excellent
Senator Campbell: Thank you for coming today, Grand Chief Atleo. It is
always nice to see a fellow British Columbian.
We spoke earlier and I want to raise this again. Senator Watt and I have been
hearing on the Legal Committee about the shocking number of people from the
First Nations who are in our jails and our prisons. We have been studying this
bill for probably a month or a month and a half. Literally, witness after
witness has described the numbers. They are quite horrifying. Is there some way
this committee could address, in a study, the root causes of this, or do we
already know the root causes?
Second, how do we go about turning around this situation where 70 per cent of
the people in Saskatchewan, I believe, are of First Nations decent? How do we
address that in our Aboriginal Committee?
Mr. Atleo: I have two thoughts on your question.
First, I would go back to identifying the Specific Claims Tribunal Act, which
creates an opportunity within the scope or spectrum of justice for culturally
relevant and responsive approaches to be contemplated. That is one part of that
particular act. While it is yet to be implemented, that is an important example
about the justice system and the relationship between First Nations and the area
I think there is important work to be done. Our people, and the people we are
speaking about, are also my relatives from my own village. They have ended up
caught up in the justice system and ended up in the jail system. We are talking
about tremendous loss potential.
It is not only about when one enters into the system. I think there is a
tremendous amount of work. Good work is being done by many organizations across
the country to work with offenders and ex-offenders. That work simply must be
supported and recognized and needs to be engaged to help design the answers to
your question about the justice system.
I also believe strongly that prevention and tackling this with a focus on
areas like education is also an important response. Link that with child welfare
funding or other areas.
We must be able to support families and communities, to support young people
to be successful in school and have an opportunity for success in life. I saw
numbers today that suggest that, of First Nations adult population age 18 and
over, our current graduation rate is at 52 per cent. That is information I just
saw today based on longitudinal studies, with a sample of about 23,000 First
Nations done by and for First Nations. This is not done externally; this is
First Nations-driven research.
There are strong correlations to be made between education success and not
only issues of justice but also issues of health and social and economic
factors. So many things can be linked to whether we support individuals for
success in life, right from kindergarten to Grade 12 and special education and
ensure young people have recreation activities and access to libraries. Families
must be supported for success.
The prevention side of this is equally important. We tackle the justice and
justice system, but we also need to address the foundational prevention supports
that are required for success in life.
Senator Campbell: It would follow that if we are successful with one,
we will not have to worry about the other. We must be successful at the
prevention end and at the school level. You are a well-educated educator. At the
school level, we need to recognize families who are in crisis or young people
who are in danger of falling through the cracks.
This takes money. We keep ending up going back to the same thing. This takes
money. However, I think you would agree that this is an investment in your
future, which is our future.
Mr. Atleo: We need to think about this in the current context. I feel
so strongly that we are in an important moment. I lost my grandmother a few
months ago. She was 88 years old; she raised 11 children, of whom my dad was the
eldest. My late grandmother went to residential school and desperately wanted to
be a nurse. In her day, it was against the law to go past Grade 8. She finished
her working life and retired as a cook. She was proud of earning her paycheques
and taking care of the 17 kids she raised. She outlived three husbands.
The eldest of her 17 successful kids is my father, who is the first
recognized First Nations man to graduate with a doctoral degree from the
University of British Columbia. The apple does not fall far from the tree. My
mother and father made sure there was a focus on education. He went so far as to
become the principal of the school in my village. We lived in the school. My
parents established an expectation for education success that was incredible.
My point is that we are not talking about a long period of history. It
matches what the Prime Minister said to the country, that the history of
residential schools, along with policies like being unable to go past Grade 8 in
my grandmother's day, was not setting us up for success. It was robbing us of
I could not agree with you more. If we put investments in the past to pull
people away from success, we should be putting our efforts today toward
supporting success. That historical experience has helped to fill the justice
system. When we put people in a position of oppression, it resulted in
intergenerational traumas that were played out in behaviours resulting in people
who are not supported in the way that they need to be supported.
I can speak with confidence about these things because we are talking about
my family as well. We hear all the time at the Assembly of First Nations about
the experiences shared among First Nations. I could not agree with you more on
your points. I wanted to add to them.
The Chair: I have a supplementary on the education question. An
agreement has been arrived at between Ottawa and British Columbia for education.
From your experiences as an educator, do you see the provinces playing a greater
role in education? They have the infrastructure that INAC does not have. This is
slowly taking place in New Brunswick and in British Columbia, but it seems to be
struggling to get off the ground. It would bring First Nations children closer
to receiving the justified funding that they are not receiving now. Some of this
education responsibility was worked out with the provinces, as opposed to the
Mr. Atleo: We are seeing examples, and you have listed a few of them,
whereby tripartite arrangements entered into with First Nations are seen as an
important way forward to address the inter-jurisdictional questions.
I want to recognize the important nation-to-nation relationship that First
Nations have and the issue of education embedded in treaties between First
Nations and the federal government. This is the important place and role that,
in my view, the federal government plays in responding to the relationship with
First Nations through that particular lens. The tripartite agreement has been an
example of how to facilitate that and recognize that there are multiple
jurisdictions. We are faced with not only the jurisdictional question on
education but also with the H1N1 crisis. We had differing responses and
approaches and differing levels of information and communication between and
among the federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions. When we agreed that
we needed to find a way to overcome those inter-jurisdictional challenges, it
felt like we were beginning to move forward.
Similarly, on child welfare, the concept of Jordan's Principle is that we do
not allow a situation to occur where a young person is left vulnerable. Whoever
is closest to the situation responds quickly. We cannot ever have happen again
what happened to that child.
It is not just for me alone to answer, because First Nations have a special
relationship with the Crown by virtue of the treaties they have entered into.
Certainly, you have pointed out examples where First Nations have said, "Let us
find a way to give effect to this First Nation-Crown relationship included in
tripartite agreements and work within and between all of the jurisdictions to
ensure that we have parity, quality and comparability when it comes to our
The examples you provide offer an important opportunity for us to consider
going forward with our work. Perhaps this committee could consider exploring
that question more thoroughly so that we all can decide how to tackle this
Senator Sibbeston: Mr. Atleo, I will ask about your comments on a new
comprehensive claims policy and using a model specific claims approach for which
the government has passed legislation. How do you see the implementation of a
new comprehensive claims policy? Part of the problem with comprehensive claims
is that after they have been settled, they are not implemented. The government
is not following through with the implementation of the provisions to which it
Mr. Atleo: There are two parts in response to that question. The work
done by the Senate on the issue of implementation is extremely key as a signal
to those who are either in negotiations or considering negotiations if they see
other agreement holders challenged by the implementation issue. First Nations
will say, for example, "I signed an agreement with the Crown, not with a single
minister. How is it that we reconcile that my agreement is with the Crown as a
whole but I need to deal with just one minister? It holds back the effectiveness
of what I expected was the spirit and intent of my modern-day agreement.'' That
is similar language to what we would have heard about a 260-year-old treaty.
"While my treaty is upheld in a court of law as being valid, we are challenged
around the spirit and intent of this agreement.'' There is not a shared notion
or understanding of what that implementation looks like. That is why I suggested
earlier that the issue of comprehensive claims policy renewal will have more
To focus on a few reasons why this would be important, we can look at the
negotiation processes happening around the country. The treaty group on
Vancouver Island successfully petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human
Rights of the Organization of American States to hear their evidence that
private property should be included in the negotiations for the comprehensive
claims process. Currently, it is not included. I might not be using the exact
terminology that would reflect it accurately, but I hope the sentiment is
received in the manner in which it is intended.
My summary point is that the comprehensive claims policy is broadly known as
having been in effect since 1986 and not having been brought up to reflect the
advancements or developments in common law. We use the specific claims example
as work that we have tried to address since the day of the late Frank Calder and
the Calder case of 1973. It took 30 years of work. A model bill was
drafted in 1987. This committee took it upon itself to reflect back on all of
that work and establish a way forward. The Prime Minister moved it along with
the former national chief, and we now have a tribunal that we expect will be
The suggestion is that we tear a page from that playbook and consider how we
might open up the space for comprehensive claims negotiations to move forward
much more quickly in the spirit that was reflected recently in the report. The
settlement of these claims will make a bigger economic impact for this entire
country in a powerfully positive way.
Perhaps this work could be done by this committee. I only suggest these
things because of the success that has been derived from the work that has been
done. I suggest that perhaps there is a parallel between the specific claims
exercise and work that — in the view of many First Nations across the country —
must be done to address the comprehensive claims policy.
Senator Sibbeston: Our committee has been focused for the last few
months on the matter of First Nations elections and how they can be improved. We
are in the last days of formulating recommendations as a result of our work. We
have been to a number of parts of the country and have heard many people — First
Nations, academics and government people.
Under the Indian Act currently, there are provisions for band elections every
two years. Provisions also allow community-based election codes to be
established. Our recommendation is aimed to make it easier for First Nations to
set up their own community codes to deal with elections.
It is certainly hard to change the Indian Act and to get consensus from First
Nations from one end of the country to the other. Our recommendations may also
propose establishing an electoral commission provision to assist in the election
and appeals process. Is that likely to be supported by your organization and the
chiefs you will be meeting in the next while?
Mr. Atleo: The issue you raised seems to be one of the most
significant issues most consistently raised by chiefs, particularly those in the
two-year electoral cycle. They say it feels like they just get started, then
they are back into an election again. Some joke that it is just like the federal
Overall, people would be much happier if they could have longer terms so they
could actually get work done. Some have moved in that direction. I think the
idea would be embraced by First Nations. First Nations have been encouraging the
federal government to examine this issue. Some regions have been driving this
issue and examining it.
The short answer is that if there is a way to improve how First Nation
governments can be supported to function more efficiently, I am certain that
would be welcomed. Having said that, I am not sure whether the Assembly of First
Nations has tackled it through resolutions in the past. We are anxious to hear
the thoughts that have been pulled together to this effect, because we have
raised it with the federal Minister of Indian Affairs.
Senator Carstairs: Congratulations, Chief Atleo, on your election. The
memories of your grandmother gave me memories of my grandmother. She had 18
children and also placed an extremely large focus on education. Her last child,
my mother, became the nurse. That was the generation before your grandmother.
My concern is with the cap. If we are to provide the kind of support for
families in child welfare and education that you have suggested, can that be
done with the present cap being maintained at 2 per cent a year? This is less
than the population growth in your communities.
Mr. Atleo: It is not possible with our current fiscal arrangement.
Senator Campbell was bang on. It takes resources and significant investments. I
refer to these as being essential services. More bluntly, it is like asking one
to choose between food on the table or heat when it is minus 30 degrees. It is
an untenable situation when children and their supports are at stake.
First Nations are well aware that the two per cent cap has been there for
over a decade, and they raise this on a regular basis with governments and at
our assemblies. The cap has had dramatic and debilitating consequences for the
ability of First Nations governments to support their people.
We must reflect deeply on that. If we are to advance changes in education, it
will take significant investment, and that is just one area. I link it to the
residential schools. I am not sure whether anyone has quantified the costs of
the exercise. To suggest that to continue at the same rate and pace of
investment or contribution will get us there without significant changes is
If we look at residential school history, what was the cost and the political
will expended to have that happen? What is required going forward? That is why I
make the link to education as one example. Child welfare is another example of
the need for proper investments to support our families and our children.
I am in full agreement with you. It would be very helpful for the Senate
committee to help us to reflect on this and to determine what we need to do to
fix these problems.
Senator Carstairs: This is a non-partisan statement because I have
heard it from governments of all political stripes: money is not everything. The
reality is that when Aboriginal children have less money spent on their
education than non-Aboriginal children, they suffer from a lack of quality
One only needs to reflect on the number of parents across this country who
are putting their children into private schools. They are willing to pay
thousands of dollars more. You have to conclude, therefore, that they think
there is a better quality of education attained through these additional dollars
being spent on their children's education. They cannot all be wrong.
If we do not put more money into the education of Aboriginal children, will
we not continue to have more child welfare problems, more child health problems
and more problems with our judicial system?
Mr. Atleo: I think there is a direct correlation. We have made
submissions to the Department of Finance about fair fiscal funding arrangements.
I have begun early in my work as national chief to reach out to civil society,
school districts, school boards, teachers' associations, student associations,
foundations, non-profits, non-governmental organizations and to Canadians in
general. We are expressing to them strongly that none of us, on our own, created
I know that when someone understands there are children in Northern Manitoba
who have not gone to school for two years, it tears at all of our hearts. I will
quote my late grandmother on education. She said, "I am a fighter. I raised my
kids to be fighters. We do not need to fight our fights with our fists any
longer. We fight them with education.'' That is a legacy she left me and our
family. It is one that your family shares. It is a value that many share.
We are falling woefully short currently in supporting individuals and
matching their potential with opportunity. At this time in our history, we need
to build on the spirit of the apology the Prime Minister offered. This belongs
not only to government but to the country and to all jurisdictions as well. We
need to reach out to civil society to say, "Walk with us. Ensure that kids have
The Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Steven Point, has an initiative
on literacy. Many important initiatives are out there. It is time that we seek
to mobilize all the resources that this country has to bear to ensure that every
child and every person in our communities has access to that opportunity for
success in life.
I could not agree with you more.
Senator Merchant: Chief, welcome and congratulations on your election.
A moment ago you said, "Come and walk with us.'' I think there is a chasm
and a lack of understanding about what it is like to walk in your shoes. I want
to go back to some of the changes that have been made to our judicial system.
I do not think we understand how difficult remand time is for your people. It
is very hard for First Nations people to get bail because they do not own
anything. You live in a nice house but you do not own it. I do not think that
Canadians understand the disproportionate difficulty that creates for you, as
well as with mandatory minimum sentences and so on.
Could you give us a picture of how these things affect your community? Is
there something we can do together? Can we work with you to educate the Canadian
public a little bit?
The residential school situation has given people a window into what happened
in residential schools, and it took a long time. These are not simple problems
How do you feel about these changes? How are they affecting your people, and
what we can do to help Canadians understand why this falls on you unfairly?
Mr. Atleo: I appreciate particularly the reference to challenges in
the justice system. You mentioned remand time and the inability of people to pay
bail costs. That touches not just on justice but on deep poverty.
We begin to have a conversation that begins with justice, but then links to
the economy. A conversation about economy then links to education. I am speaking
not only of educating First Nations for success in life, but education that
speaks to reducing or eliminating the deep gap of misunderstanding between
peoples and cultures. This is the notion that was so famously stated recently:
We are all treaty people. If you come from an area that is draped with a treaty
that was signed over the course of history and you are a new immigrant to Canada
and settle there or if your family has been there five generations, you are also
a treaty person.
What does that mean to us as a country now? I can point to Saskatchewan as
having done some very important work. Saskatchewan has a treaty commissioner and
now incorporates the issues of the treaty into the school curriculum. My
interest would be to see that happen throughout the entire country.
Most conflicts around the world are based on a deep misunderstanding between
peoples. In our own backyard we can build on the sentiment that our ancestors
had about mutual respect, recognition and understanding. That is the key that
has been missing. When understanding increases about the challenges, the heart
is there, people care, and then we are in a better position to respond.
It is when we only cut across the very top layer of an issue and not take the
time to drill deeply that we sometimes miss it. Then it becomes about conflict.
Where else is there to go except to rise up and go to the courts? Some First
Nations take to direct action on the ground if that deep sense of understanding
is not facilitated.
I know you spoke about the justice system specifically, and it links back to
Senator Campbell's point. Work needs to be done, and there are others who are
experts in that area. That backs into areas like education for our people as
well as education more broadly.
I am reaching out to the presidents of universities, colleges and the
education system as a whole to ask them to share the responsibility for ensuring
that we facilitate mutual understanding about this issue in this country.
I have met many recent graduates of institutions of higher learning who had
never heard of conversations about treaties or residential schools. How can we
expect, as a society, to overcome these deep chasms of misunderstanding that
erupt in conflict like in places like Ontario, Caledonia and Oka? We are bound
to repeat that pattern of conflict if we do not do something about this deep
This impacts the people faced with the justice system; they are in that
cycle. We are not supporting them to break that cycle as a society. I know that
is a long answer, but it does back into prevention as well as education.
Senator Stewart Olsen: Thank you for coming.
Please forgive me; I am new to this. I am wondering about your role and how
you get things done. I do not want to take up too much of the committee's time
on this, but I want to hear how you integrate your role with the actual
grassroots Aboriginal population.
Mr. Atleo: That is a very good question. Thank you. My role is to be
an advocate. Looking at the international level, nation states come together at
the United Nations and they work together to identify ways forward where there
is mutual interest.
First Nations do the same thing. Through the Assembly of First Nations they
gather together. We have national assemblies where the chiefs, as the political
leaders, will take political decisions about where they want to see their
To touch on your question as well about involvement and inclusiveness, it is
a core value of the more than 600 First Nations across the country. First Nation
governments operate and act in that manner. The premise of inclusiveness in
decision making is deeply embedded in traditional values, which the very
constitutions of Canada and the United States were based on. Groups like the
Iroquois Confederacy are noted for contributing to those thoughts. Inclusiveness
is an important core value.
This coming week we are holding assembly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The evening of Monday, December 7, I want to invite you all to a parliamentary
reception for parliamentarians and senators to come together with First Nation
leaders and community members. This is a prelude to the three-day assembly.
Monday, during the day, we are having a deep caucus discussion that is open not
only to First Nations leaders but to grassroots community members to talk about
education, climate change, water, the Canadian Human Rights Act and health. That
is on Monday before we begin our actual assembly.
Our assembly is Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We will be talking about
First Nation-Crown relations. We will have a similar structure where we will
talk about education, the economy and climate change within the notion of
treaties and the treaty relationship, Aboriginal title and rights negotiations,
as well as modern-day treaty agreement implementation.
First Nations will be invited to gather into these caucus discussions.
Governments will then take decisions through resolution. They provide direction
to our 10-member national executive, of which I am the 11th member. Then our
responsibility is to advocate on behalf of — not get in between — the
government-to-government relationship. First Nation governments do see
themselves as rightfully having a First-Nations-to-government relationship.
Senator Stewart Olsen: Who funds you? Do the First Nations fund your
organization for advocacy?
Mr. Atleo: The federal government funds the work of the Assembly of
First Nations through various federal departments, particularly Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada.
Senator Stewart Olsen: In your advocacy, how do you measure your
successes or re-examine your work? Your key themes are huge. There is an
enormous amount of work to be done. I certainly recognize that. I am concerned
because it is so broad. How do you manage to achieve success with such a broad
plan or key themes?
Mr. Atleo: The chiefs will be discussing that among themselves next
week. For example, regarding the earlier point about funding and the cap that
exists, the First Nations are pursuing addressing the fiscal transfer.
We have raised improvements in education as a key area. More than 60 schools
are needed in communities right now.
Senator Stewart Olsen: Essentially, at your assembly, the chiefs would
point out the most important things they see that need to be addressed, and then
you would bring that forward; is that correct?
Mr. Atleo: That is right. In essence, we become a facilitative or
coordinating organization. The chiefs come together with areas they have a
particular focus and attention on. They give us instructions to carry out the
As I said at the outset, with issues such as education, this is really about
us finding ways together to design and articulate what success must look like. I
am suggesting that we smash the status quo on two fronts. We have been lurching
from conflict to conflict for generations. Our courts are flooded across the
country at every level, based on a relationship that is very poor; the sense of
mistrust runs deep.
I think this committee can play an important role in facilitating truly
working together to achieve successful results in areas like education and child
welfare, for example.
Senator Stewart Olsen: Thank you for your answers to my questions. You
have clarified things quite a bit for me.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: I want to congratulate you, as well.
Do you feel the government is fulfilling its responsibility to First Nations?
Mr. Atleo: We have a long way to go. We begin with talking together
about what success means. I do not think that has happened over the course of
history like it should have. I think it is time. There has always been an
intention to have a close relationship. That is what the ancestors described
when they wrote the treaties. A treaty is not something you sign and then walk
away from. It is really a relationship.
We are seeking that good relationship, so we jointly decide or define what we
need to be doing collectively. First Nation governments have a responsibility,
as do the federal and other governments. We have Aboriginal title and treaty
rights. However, I would use the correlation over in the labour relations area
where there are agreements in place between people. There are dispute
resolutions and the lawyers have worked it over. It is very clear, but the
relationship still breaks down. You end up with lockouts and strikes.
I use the correlation of the treaty relationship. We have yet to really talk
jointly about what that means and how it should be articulated and what success
means. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise when frustration erupts based
on a not-shared understanding of what success means and whether enough is being
done on the part of governments. As we sit here, there are places on the
landscape where people are blocking logging roads and where grave sites have
I talked to a chief two days ago who told me about living between two dams.
The dams are used obviously to provide power. Then the ancestors' bodies float
to the surface of the lake that has been flooded.
It comes back to the earlier points about that deep chasm in understanding
what constitutes success. We have so much further to go in this country. Are we
making progress on the long journey? I would suggest we are.
I know that when my father was pursuing his doctorate degree there were a
handful of Aboriginal people in post- secondary education. We hit a peak in 2007
of close to 30,000 Aboriginal people in post-secondary education. Since 2007 to
2009, it has begun to drop. With our population going up, any kind of drop in
education is a cause for deep concern.
I suggest that we have to focus on what will make some of the biggest shifts
or improvements to the quality of life of First Nations peoples in this country.
It suggests to me strongly that we have a long way to go. I think that is in
part what we are talking about here: What can we now do at this point in
However, finally, we need to revisit the rate and pace of change in First
Nations peoples' lives. Are we okay with the little incremental pieces we have
been doing over the course of history, driven by changes that have been
happening in the courts, or is this country prepared to make a fundamental shift
in its relationship with First Nations, to say it is not okay that we have over
500 missing Aboriginal and murdered women in this country? It is not okay that
the courts are flooded. It is not okay that we have more children in care now
than at the time of the residential schools.
We say that these things are complex, but we have lots of bodies of work that
give us the strong sense that we know how to achieve change. It requires the
will of this country to embrace that this is a top priority for the country.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Do you feel that would be a quick solution
to the problems First Nations people are having in their communities?
Mr. Atleo: Could you repeat the question?
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Do you feel the relationship between the
governments and First Nations people is a solution to help minimize the Third
World conditions the First Nations people live in?
Mr. Atleo: I think the recognition is what begins the process of
addressing it. If we accept that it is indeed the challenge we have, that, in
Canada, which rightfully has a good reputation protecting and standing up for
human rights around the world, we have these challenges at home, and if we
embrace that, I am confident in my heart that we can achieve the kinds of
significant changes that are required.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Thank you.
Senator Hubley: Welcome, Mr. Atleo. You mentioned the Indian Act and
removing barriers in relation to this study that we have been doing on
governance. Would you elaborate for us on that?
I would like your views on the Indian Act. Is it playing the necessary role
to do what we think it should be doing and what you think it should be doing?
Then I would also like to have your comment on the department of Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada.
Mr. Atleo: In terms of a comment, I have had a number of meetings and
very good conversations with Minister Strahl, his officials and the department
about sentiments similar to what we are discussing here, about shifting our
working relationship from one of protracted conflict to looking for ways to work
together as we did with the Specific Claims Tribunal Act.
That also resulted in a political accord signed between the former national
chief and the federal government. As the new national chief, I have a
responsibility to continue to work to give effect to that accord. One topic
within that accord is the issue of treaties and the treaty relationship, for
example. Early in my work, we have had early positive conversations about
seeking ways to work jointly. The minister has accepted our invitation to come
to the special chiefs' assembly next week.
In response to an earlier question about how we do our work, the pattern over
the course of history is that we have largely been reacting to legislative
initiatives that First Nations feel strongly have not included them, nor
reflected nor respected their treaty rights or Aboriginal title rights.
I need to circle back to your other question.
Senator Hubley: You had suggested removing barriers.
Mr. Atleo: Your work that is coming on elections is one such example.
We all must remember and remind ourselves that the Indian Act was imposed on
First Nations. It constitutes a reality of our lives now and is the principle
instrument, by and large, through which we have been defining and describing our
relationship with the federal government. As the Senate and others are hearing,
many First Nations are suggesting that we need either to replace it or to get
rid of it and redefine our relationships based on the notion of the treaties,
which was a nation-to-nation relationship. When we begin to talk about status or
non-status, we are not talking about citizenship that should be defined and
described by First Nations, and it is not a nation-to-nation relationship.
We are talking about a parallel conversation, are we not, about removing
barriers to an instrument that none of us created and poses all sorts of
problems but is the principal way First Nations and the federal government
interact. I feel that in our work together, we need to examine not only how to
remove the barriers but, in the long run, how to remove the Indian Act entirely.
But what do you replace it with? That is where we are at right now at this
juncture in history, asking ourselves those questions. First Nations will be
contemplating that as well in their upcoming conversations.
Senator Hubley: I want to repeat nation-to-nation, if the Indian Act
slides in there somewhere between that nation- to-nation or nation-to-federal
government, which means Indian Act.
Mr. Atleo: There are two parts. First, the Indian Act constitutes or
places many barriers to First Nation success. It has become part of how we
define our talk about nation-to-nation. In fact, the Indian Act as an instrument
is unilateral; it is not nation-to-nation in that respect. It was imposed
externally, which is not nation-to-nation, and, by and large, it continues to be
reformed on a unilateral basis; that is how First Nations have received changes
made to it.
It causes major problems for everyone, but we continue to do our best to
wrestle with this concurrent exercise of what we do with an instrument that we
have all inherited that has these problems and barriers. What is our longer-term
vision of where we want to go? We need to look at what the original treaty
relationship described, that nation-to- nation relationship. That is the lens
through which First Nations arrive at this discussion. We need to move back
towards that nation-to-nation relationship.
Senator Dyck: Welcome and congratulations, National Chief Atleo. I
apologize that I was late, but I had another committee meeting before this doing
clause-by-clause consideration of a bill, so I could not leave.
My question is about education. I am delighted to hear that education
occupies a big part of your mandate. You noted that the First Nation population
is young and growing. We have known for some time that education is important to
the success of the individual as well as the family group and society at large.
In terms of education for First Nations, considering the age group, do you
see specific opportunities there? For instance, would you, in your work, focus
mainly on children in elementary or secondary school as opposed to the focus
that we have been maintaining on post-secondary education, or should we be
focusing on them all because it is such an important issue that we need every
one of them to have the highest level of education possible?
Mr. Atleo: I feel strongly about this issue on two fronts. First, the
residential school legacies sought, whether intentionally or not, to impede
generations in terms of success in education. In that respect, if we focus only
on one segment of the demographic or population, someone is being left behind. I
feel strongly that at this time in our history we need to support the full
spectrum of supports in education, including special education and early
childhood education. We know that kindergarten to Grade 4 is fundamental to
success in life and that parental involvement and family supports are incredibly
key. The chiefs come to me with a line up and list of people who want to go on
to post- secondary education, and they do not have the resources to do that.
We think about the healing work. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation tells us
from their research that it takes on average 10 years of focused healing work in
communities before adults are supported to be able to get back on their feet and
into the workforce. If we leave them out, we are also leaving out a legacy of
the residential school that hurts or holds someone back.
That is my answer to your question. Sometimes we focus in on pieces about
graduation rates or early childhood or special education or on the academics
versus the trades and apprenticeship programs and skills training. That is why
it feels to me that now is the time to somehow harness all the important
thinking that goes into all of these areas and work on it, perhaps. We open the
door of education and we walk through it, but then it explodes as an area, does
it not? It is broad. How can we do this work, recognize how broad it is but be
focused on what kind of outcomes we can accomplish?
Senator Dyck: Do you see any way that this committee could help on the
Mr. Atleo: Earlier when I was reflecting on some of the comments that
were made, I had to hold myself back because I was saying maybe this committee
could help us reflect on that very question. How is it that we can learn from
our experiences and recognize the reality and the challenges of the Indian Act?
We have been advocating and supporting First Nations to move away from it. We
should perhaps consider agreeing that in some ways the Indian Act is an outright
attack on First Nations. To pause to reflect, and not necessarily in the way of
placing any focus except on how we get the results, is important. Contemplate,
as the chair or someone else mentioned, the inter-jurisdictional aspects. It was
the supplementary that the chair raised earlier before the senator came in.
The Chair: Correct, and you brought up the tripartite aspect.
Mr. Atleo: Yes, as one example. Perhaps the committee could help us to
reflect on our mistakes and the things that have been working. Then what are the
ways forward? To bring into sharp focus and reflection, how might we address
supporting people to succeed in education?
I have read many quotes lately, but George Washington said that an educated
Indian is a dangerous Indian. I read that quote today. I agree, but in a good
way. We are talking about lighting the fire and the spirit of our people to
bring some sharp focus onto this for our entire population and maybe end up with
a set of "never agains,'' whether approaches or something else. The Prime
Minister said never again will education become a tool of hurt and oppression
amongst a people.
That is why your point about the full spectrum and where we should focus our
efforts is important. I agree that if there is some way we can focus to achieve
some powerful results, that is important. When it comes to support, we have to
find a way to support all of our people, because they have all been adversely
Senator Raine: Thank you for being here this evening, Grand Chief
Atleo. I was intending to ask questions on a different subject, but I will wait
until you come back again, because education is a prime concern and everyone on
our committee is aware of that. You talked about education as having many
different parts to it, for example early childhood, post-secondary, trades and
so on. One aspect of education that I think it important to not leave out is
education for the average person about the way you live your life and how to
live a good, healthy life: food, nutrition, preventive health measures. Another
aspect is becoming educated without going to school. We tend to think of
education as classrooms and teachers and programs that are delivered by
ministries of education or boards of education, but education is much more than
that. The traditional knowledge that is still there in your communities with the
elders and their ability to pass that on is important as well.
On a national basis, how would you go about lighting the fire on all of these
different fronts and not leaving out any of them? That is a big question, is it
Senator Campbell: You are last, so that is okay.
Senator Raine: If you had a blank canvass and could use your
imagination and your dreams to design the ideal situation that would attack
everything at the same time, could you come up with something?
Senator Dyck: And all the resources?
Senator Raine: Yes, and all the resources.
Mr. Atleo: It might be based on your reference to tradition. The
longhouse, where my father was born, was the house of education. It was the
house of health. It was the house of child welfare. It was the house of healthy
eating. It was incredibly and completely incorporated and integrated.
We reflect on what we do today. Many of these things happen in isolation from
one another. I have seen some excellent models where the health centre is in the
school, or vice versa, and you cannot tell the difference between them because
they are there together.
There are some powerful opportunities for us to reflect on your question,
such as the area of sports, with you being a model and an icon in the area of
sport. When it comes back to funding, First Nations are not funded for
recreational facilities, for example. First Nations leaders joined together and
pressed the Assembly of First Nations for something for the kids in our
communities. I think about supporting young people to aspire to become elite
athletes, to compete in whatever sport they want or just to be a healthy person.
Education about health for the average person, what to eat, is also important. I
suggest the idea of prevention or education for a healthy and successful life.
If we walk through the door of education together, define it together,
without leaving anything out, or leaving anyone out, we can decide as a country,
in the spirit of the apology in a post-apology time, that we will do right by
First Nations peoples. The residential school experience was under the guise of
education. That was the broad umbrella under which it fell, but it had
far-reaching consequences, because children were taken from homes into a
different context. Let us reconcile that. They were taken from their homes and
introduced to new foods. Let us reconcile that. They were taken out of their
context and there was no interaction with the broad Canadian societal context.
We can deal with that. We have it within our means to do this. In a
generation, we can have people graduating from schools in the mainstream system
who know about these issues and for whom a conversation like this is obsolete,
because we arrive at tables like this knowing full well that the entire country
is aware of these issues and all of our collective resources are being brought
to bear to address it.
In any given province or territory, you have a municipality on one side of
the river inlet or train tracks, and you have First Nations on the other side,
but they might as well be a million miles apart. We also have excellent examples
where that is not the case and they are working together. I know I am not alone
in this room knowing that that is the case in the country by and large.
In my view, at the end of the day it comes back to relationships between
peoples and the notion of inclusion. The original treaties were about inclusion.
It was about welcoming people into the land and helping them survive their first
winter and teaching them how to survive, and then figuring out how to live
together — that notion out of the Delgamuukw decision that we are all
here to stay. There are 35 million people in this land, and there is not
anywhere in this country that does not have First Nations history to it,
including the room that we are in now.
I would like to leave this term knowing that I will not go to a community and
find that kids have not been to school for two years. I would love to see that
happen. I believe in my heart that we can accomplish these things, because it is
not acceptable to any of us. I want to see suicide rates down. That is linked as
well, but we did not talk about it. Incarceration rates are linked as well, and
the murdered and missing women and the violence. A large majority of the
violence is First Nations to First Nations. That we hurt each other or are in
conflict with one another is something I experienced personally growing up in my
life in my village. We are seeing progress on that.
In conclusion, for me, it is the idea that we did not arrive here on our own.
We did not create these institutions or acts on our own. Reach out to what we
have, the special relationship with the Crown, the people of Canada, and say
that it is time we walk together to change the conditions for our people.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Grand Chief Atleo. As you can see, the
members of this committee are interested in working with you and in doing what
is right for First Nations people. I think I can safely say that includes
everyone at this table here tonight.
You bring an inspirational aspect to your position, and the country is lucky
to have you in the position you are in. The expectations are high, but I have
known you for a while and I am totally convinced that, given the right set of
circumstances, you will do what is necessary and what is right. There is a lot
to do. You spoke about success, and failure is not an option.
Mr. Atleo: That is right.
The Chair: We go forward with that. I thank you for taking time to be
with us tonight. On behalf of all the members of the committee, we wish you well
in your leadership and in your term of office.
(The committee continued in camera.)