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Ottawa's relationship with Assembly of First Nations makes some natives uneasy

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo poses for a photograph in Ottawa on Jan. 20, 2012.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/dave chan The Globe and Mail

Manitoba chiefs have joined those in Saskatchewan in condemning an action plan to improve the lives of native people, saying it was crafted without their input by the Assembly of First Nations and the federal government.

The rejection strikes another blow at attempts by AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo to forge a new relationship with Ottawa.

Many native leaders are wary of government intentions as they prepare to fight for a share of revenues from resources that lie within their traditional territories and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper promotes the construction of a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific across first-nations lands.

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In a letter to Mr. Atleo, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says the federal Conservative government and the AFN have been developing plans and statements that were not approved by the first nations in his province.

Specifically, Mr. Nepinak objects to an "outcome statement" that was released at the end of a meeting in January between the chiefs and Mr. Harper. That statement endorsed a joint action plan launched last summer by the AFN and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan that lays out broad steps for promoting first-nations prosperity.

The chiefs who attended the January meeting "were adamantly opposed to any joint messages/statements or action plans being developed by the AFN and the [government]as key outcomes of this gathering," wrote Mr. Nepinak in his letter dated last Friday, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Nepinak said Tuesday he was concerned that his letter had been given to the media. "I don't know what value politicizing the matter really brings to the discussion," he said in a telephone interview.

However, many chiefs across Canada have expressed unease that the AFN has developed too close a relationship with Ottawa, said the Manitoba Grand Chief. It must be made clear, he said, that the support of the AFN for any initiative does not mean the initiative has the support of the first nations themselves.

"When we look at a joint action plan made between our national chief and [Mr.]Duncan, we have to consider the tremendous imbalance in power," he said. "The federal government has the ability to create policy and law that could impede aboriginal treaty rights at the grassroots level."

Mr. Atleo responded to Mr. Nepinak in a letter Tuesday saying he fully agreed that first-nations leaders alone could make decisions in matters affecting their people. He also said the joint action plan stems from a strategic plan developed by the AFN executive, made up of representatives of all the regions, and that its elements have been supported by national resolutions.

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"Let me provide absolute certainty that work references in the joint action plan or in the outcome statement in no way purports to suggest agreement of any first nations," Mr. Atleo wrote.

The salvos aimed at the national chief also come in the months before he faces re-election in July.

Some first-nations officials have been circulating a series of e-mails, written on the day of the January meeting, that show the outcome statement being sent from a communications aide within the Prime Minister's Office, to Mr. Harper's associate director of communications, to the communications director for Mr. Duncan, and then to the AFN. They say the e-mails suggest that the statement was actually written within the PMO without AFN input.

AFN officials say that is not the case. The statement, they said, was drafted during advance discussions between the AFN and the government and it was simply meant to reflect talks between members of the AFN executive, Mr. Duncan and the PMO.

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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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