OTTAWA -- National Chief Shawn Atleo has staked his ground for upcoming talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to improve the quality of life for First Nations, setting a time limit of this spring for concrete action.
The Assembly of First Nations leader returns to Ottawa re-energized after a 10-day sick leave, protests across Canada and a six-week hunger protest by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence that exacerbated schisms within his own organization.
The chiefs within the AFN now have the national chief on a short leash, driving him hard to show his relationship with Harper is more effective than taking a hardline approach with Ottawa.
He must now follow up on the controversial Jan. 11 meetings between chiefs and Harper by nailing down dates for further conversations to break an impasse between the government and First Nations.
In an interview Friday with The Canadian Press, Atleo said he needs to see tangible results from the federal government soon -- as does Harper if he wants to proceed with his top priority of advancing natural resource extraction.
"We need to see in a short period of time -- I'm talking three to four months -- concrete action on efforts that we've been seeking for decades," Atleo said from Vancouver as he was boarding a plane.
Where to start? The Assembly of First Nations presented Harper with a list of eight different priorities on Jan. 11. Then, this week, the AFN signed on to a declaration driven by Spence, which listed 13 priorities.
In the interview, Atleo moved some of those to the top of the list. Particularly key will be Harper's commitment to empower senior officials to modernize and implement treaties and speed up comprehensive land claims, he said.
First Nations chiefs across the country are angry treaties and inherent rights -- recognized in the Canadian Constitution -- have long been ignored by government, leaving aboriginal communities impoverished, uneducated and unable to progress.
"We need one another. We need each other. That's what the treaty relationship always said. Socially, politically, culturally, economically," Atleo said.
"We can demonstrate that now or we face the risk of repeating the patterns of conflict and disconnect that have plagued us for absolutely generations."
While Harper has agreed in principle to put treaty talks and land claims on a fast track, confidential minutes of the Jan. 11 meeting suggest a lack of understanding within the federal cabinet about the importance of the issue to First Nations people.
Twice during the meeting, Treasury Board President Tony Clement admitted to "not understanding (the) entire relationship with treaty," say draft minutes written for the AFN executive and obtained by APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Clement is in charge of cost-cutting with the federal government and has recently been given responsibility for the massive Ring of Fire base metals discovery in northern Ontario -- a discovery that sits on traditional native lands.
Many chiefs believe the ancient treaties they signed with the Crown were meant to share the land and its spoils, and should be set out in modern language so First Nations have clear rights to funding, revenue from natural resources and the wherewithal to have a standard of living like the rest of Canadians.
-- The Canadian Press