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AFN chief Atleo to push for partnerships at premiers’ meeting

With natives feeling ignored on key treaty rights, Shawn Atleo, the newly re-elected Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the advocacy organization will take the conversation directly to businesses on resource development.

Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

National chief Shawn Atleo wants the premiers to recognize first nations as full and equal partners in developing natural resources, but he says such recognition should not have to wait for politicians to agree on a national energy plan.

The head of the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal leaders are meeting today with premiers in Lunenburg, N.S., in advance of the annual Council of the Federation summit on inter-provincial relations.

The premiers, like Mr. Atleo, are consumed with devising better ways to develop natural resources so that more people can benefit, and so that the environment does not pay too steep a price.

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But details of what a national energy strategy would look like are vague, and buy-in from all the provinces is uncertain — especially now that Alberta and British Columbia are sparring openly over the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Mr. Atleo says the premiers don't need to reach agreement on a strategy to recognize and support the fundamental concept of first nations having the right to have a say and share in the wealth that comes from exploiting natural resources.

"We have to be full partners," he said in an interview from Halifax on Tuesday night.

That means engaging with first nations early and often, obtaining their consent in the plans for development, and devising ways to share the spoils, such as through equity stakes or investment in communities, he said.

At their annual general meeting last week, first nations chiefs made it clear they will insist on playing a larger role, either through negotiation with the provincial and federal governments, through the courts or through protests and blockades, Mr. Atleo said.

Indeed, many individual first nations are in the midst of opposing some of Canada's largest resource developments: the Northern Gateway pipeline to take Alberta bitumen to the West Coast; the Plan Nord for Quebec and the Ring of Fire mineral deposit in northern Ontario.

The conflict "becomes a familiar pattern that we're trying to break out of," Mr. Atleo said.

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With the Canadian Council for Chief Executives indicating earlier this month that aboriginal communities should be fully included in energy and mining developments, and with the premiers agonizing over similar issues, Mr. Atleo says the time is ripe for crafting a broad framework that takes into account all interests.

"I hope we're at a turning point," he said.

For the national chief, a successful meeting with the premiers today would be one in which the premiers recognize first nations as full partners, with still-valid historical rights to health care, education and the land.

On education, he wants premiers to agree to work with first nations educators so that native children can have their schooling recognized in provincial systems.

And on violence against women, he hopes to see premiers back the call from aboriginal groups for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Mr. Atleo is meeting the leaders of the other aboriginal groups this morning so they can form a common front on how best persuade premiers to join them in mitigating violence against women.

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"There isn't any one us in any one community who has not been touched by this issue," he said. "I know what it's like to feel unsafe in a community as a child."

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