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First Nations chief wants to disband Aboriginal Affairs department

National Chief Shawn Atleo as seen through ceremonial eagle feathers, speaks at a news conference in Vancouver, BC, June 24, 2010. Leaders of both the Sto:lo and Chehalis First Nations held the news conference to address significant issues arising from a trail of First Nations citizens charged with illegally trafficing in Bald eagle parts.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail/Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The federal aboriginal affairs department should be scrapped in favour of a new model of native governance, which would mark a major step on the road to independence, the head of Canada's largest aboriginal organization says.

National Chief Shawn Atleo will tell the annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Moncton, N.B., on Tuesday that the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development should be replaced by two new entities: One to focus on the relationship between first nations and the Crown, the other to continue providing services to aboriginals.

The call is part of the AFN national chief's long-term goal of fostering a separate governance system for Canada's first nations, ending the more paternalistic system that currently exists. Mr. Atleo, who has called for a "clear plan" to move away from the Indian Act, will present a brief called "Pursuing First Nation Self-Determination," a copy of which has been obtained by The Globe and Mail.

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Since taking office, Mr. Atleo has worked to build his own relationship with the Conservative government - in particular with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And the push for more autonomy for aboriginals and less direct government intervention in their affairs is likely to sit well with Mr. Harper's Conservative base if it also means fewer subsidies from Ottawa to reserves.

But some within the Conservative Party are wary of creating a series of aboriginal nation states within Canada.

Mr. Atleo envisions an arrangement that would allow first nations to build their own economies. And, in his brief, he argues for "new fiscal transfer arrangements" that would adhere to common principles of fairness and equality among all jurisdictions.

He points out that many independent studies conducted over the past three decades have examined ways to give Canada's first nations more jurisdiction over their affairs.

"All point to ultimately replacing or phasing out the Department of Indian Affairs (recently renamed the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by the federal Conservative government) and establishing new contact points that properly reflect the nation-to-nation relationship and financing arrangements appropriate to a nation-to-nation relationship and reflective of the Crown's fiduciary duties to support the implementation of first nations government," the report says.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan did not respond on Monday to requests for comment on Mr. Atleo's vision. But his spokeswoman, Michelle Yao, said: "Our government is strongly committed to addressing challenges within the Indian Act. We are supporting investments and partnerships to address these, including legislation, based on partnerships and agreements with first nations, provinces and territories."

Mr. Harper has worked to build a relationship with first nations people, issuing an apology for residential schools in 2008. In recognition of that action, he was named an honorary chief of the first nations Blood Tribe in Alberta on Monday, and has agreed join a first nations-Crown gathering that is expected to take place later this year.

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Mr. Atleo would like to see Ottawa and the first nations negotiate with each other from a position of equals. It is a structural change, he says in the report, that would better ensure that money intended to help first nations is used for that purpose "as opposed to supporting increased bureaucratic presence."

A source within the AFN said Monday that the government does not do a good job of delivering services to first-nations members and it is time to create "leaner and more efficient entities" that would support native autonomy.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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