Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has announced that he will step aside temporarily on doctor’s orders due to the strain of the past several weeks.
“I am proud of the support we received from First Nations citizens and Chiefs across Canada, even during the most difficult days,” Atleo said in a statement released on January 14, referring to the grassroots Idle No More movement, the hunger strike of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence and the negotiations it took to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the table for a January 11 meeting with First Nations leadership.
“There were many long conference calls, late night meetings, and frustrations in the past two weeks,” he said. “I regret to have to tell you that those long days have caught up with me. This weekend, my doctor ordered that I take some time now to rest and recover and I have agreed with my family that I do this now.”
He designated Regional Chief Augustine to chair meetings of the AFN’s national executive board “in my brief absence” and said that Regional Chief Bellegarde and Regional Chief Wilson-Raybould would “continue the work that they led this week on Treaty implementation and on comprehensive claims.” He also emphasized the need to keep the momentum going.
“As we did in the meeting on January 11, we must seize the agenda and drive the next steps on each and every element,” Atleo said. “I encourage everyone to contribute fully to these next steps. I have also directed the senior staff of the Assembly of First Nations to mobilize staff working teams on these elements to provide the analysis and support required.”
The announcement capped more than a month of protests that blossomed on December 10, International Human Rights Day, mainly around the passage of the omnibus budget bill known as C-45. That bill, many aboriginals contend, guts key sections of the environmental review process and cuts into treaty rights.
The protests came to be known as the Idle No More movement and coincided with the beginning of a hunger strike by Spence on December 11, when she began subsisting solely on fish broth and medicinal teas to demand a meeting between First Nations leadership, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston, who represents the Crown. Those meetings were granted and held on January 11, though Johnston and Harper did not attend together.
Spence and numerous other chiefs boycotted the Harper meeting, and many called for Atleo to do so as well. Atleo and 19 other chiefs opted to attend, and came out reporting progress, but that and the subsequent meeting with Johnston did not satisfy Spence. She announced on January 12 that she would keep her hunger strike going until both men met simultaneously with First Nations, even as fellow chiefs and the head of the New Democratic Party, the official Opposition to Harper’s Conservative government, urged her to desist.
In his statement, Atleo expressed hope for the future and lauded the grassroots for jogging the government into action after a year of virtual inactivity following last year’s historic Crown–First Nations Gathering.
“Friends and colleagues, this has been a fateful moment in the decades of struggle by our peoples,” Atleo said. “We have secured important new ground. Now the harder, but less visible, work of turning promises into action begins. I look forward to working with all of you on those tasks in the weeks and months ahead. Together I am confident we ensure that this week marks the end of a long bitter chapter of paralysis and provocation in our relationship with the [government of Canada], and that it truly is the beginning of a new chapter.”
He did not say how long he would be gone but concluded, “I will see you all very soon and will return re-invigorated and strengthened to work with you to drive this change together with all of you.”