Chiefs from the Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations have welcomed the election of Shawn Atleo, the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Atleo was elected after eight ballots at the assembly's 2009 convention last week. He fought a tight race against Perry Bellegarde of Saskatchewan's Little Black Bear First Nation and outlasted three other candidates before him: B.C.'s Bill Wilson, Ontario's John Beaucage and Manitoba's Terrance Nelson.
The latter three candidates were knocked out of voting after a second ballot, leaving Atleo and Bellegrade to battle it out for the next 24 hours. Bellegarde conceded defeat after eight ballots.
Atleo, a hereditary chief of Vancouver Island's Ahousaht First Nation, most recently served as the Assembly's regional chief in British Columbia and helped draft a B.C. First Nations Leadership Accord with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the First Nations Summit.
He now takes over an organization that claims to represent over 630 First Nation communities throughout Canada. He takes up the reins from Phil Fontaine, who was first elected in 1997 and served three terms.
During his time in office Fontaine negotiated the Kelowna Accord, an agreement with a Liberal government to spend $5 billion on alleviating aboriginal poverty over 10 years. The current Conservative government has not honoured that agreement. Atleo has credited the Leadership Accord with making Kelowna happen.
Fontaine's time in office also saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper offer a formal apology for residential schools, a longstanding policy that placed First Nations, Inuit and Metis children in government- and church-run schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Now with Atleo in charge of the Assembly of First Nations, Squamish Hereditary Chief Bill Williams said that British Columbia's First Nations will have an easier time moving their priorities forward.
"It'll show the rest of the tribes across Canada how we work on the West Coast," he said in an interview. "It seems like everything else in Canada, all the politics stop at the Rockies and nothing else is heard west of the Rockies."
Williams, who attended the convention himself and often puts resolutions on the floor at assembly meetings, said B.C. First Nations won't have to expend as much time explaining their issues or their points of view to the rest of the country.
"The majority of First Nations in Canada have a treaty already and the majority of the tribes in British Columbia do not," he said. "There are things that we want to do and move forward that will benefit all First Nations right across Canada, but people with treaties only see the answer is the treaty itself and nothing else matters.
"They polarize and fixate on their treaties and don't bother thinking out of the box."
Leonard Andrew, chief of the Mount Currie Band of the Lil'wat Nation, also attended the convention and was "elated" at Atleo's election. A weary Andrew told Pique from Calgary that Atleo's election garnered a "historic" result.
"It's the first time I've seen that many chiefs or representatives at the assembly," he said. "Of course I eventually supported Shawn because of the fact that when it really came down to it, it really became regionalized, you know, a candidate from British Columbia obviously and a candidate from Saskatchewan."
Atleo's platform promised to tackle divisions among First Nations as well as the "unfounded" assumptions of a lack of accountability and integrity on the part of the assembly.
His election helps centralize a lot of power in B.C. when it comes to issues related to First Nations: Chuck Strahl, the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, is also the MP for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, which includes Pemberton and Lillooet.
As National Chief Atleo wants to see treaties get implemented and to deal with issues such as poverty, violence against women, unsafe drinking water and desecration of sacred sites.
Pique left Atleo a message requesting an interview but it wasn't returned.