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National chief rebukes Ottawa’s reforms to fixing problems ailing aboriginals

Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo appears at Commons Aboriginal affairs committee to give a briefing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 1, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal attempts to repair the much-hated Indian Act are not going to work because first nations have not been involved in designing the way forward, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says.

Shawn Atleo says Ottawa has taken a piecemeal approach to first nations reform – fiddling with education here, clean drinking water there – without tackling the fundamental problem of aboriginal treaties and rights not being respected.

"You've got to do them at the same time. They are one piece," Mr. Atleo said Friday.

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Ottawa has promised repeatedly – through treaties, a UN declaration, and most recently a high-profile summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper – to jointly develop solutions that respect long-standing agreements with first nations – all to little avail, he said.

"The expectations and understanding has not been a shared one," Mr. Atleo said. Instead, Ottawa "is fixing flaws from a unilateral, one-dimensional perspective, which does not reflect the promise of treaty."

Conflict, unrest and interminable legal challenges are the inevitable result unless Ottawa finds the political will to co-operate, he added.

"Does it not make sense that we do this together?" he said. Otherwise, "we're bound to repeat the pattern."

Mr. Atleo is proposing a series of steps that would see first nations governed mainly by rights enshrined in the Constitution and sharing more fully in the proceeds of resource development.

The federal government responded by citing a list of the changes it has already made.

Jan O'Driscoll, a spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, pointed out a bill that makes band electoral procedures more transparent, a bill to improve matrimonial rights, a commitment to develop legislation to improve education on reserves and a promise to make the land claims process more efficient.

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It's exactly that kind of response that proves his point, Mr. Atleo said.

"Government's response has often been limited, narrow, piecemeal and unilateral," he said in his first major attempt since being re-elected last summer to set out next steps for first nations self-governance.

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