National Chief Atleo pitches blueprint for moving beyond the Indian Act

Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is laying out a concrete plan to move beyond the much-hated Indian Act.

Shawn 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.

"If we believe in our Constitution, and if we believe in the promises we made to one another in the early days of this nation, it is incumbent upon us to find the way forward," Atleo said Friday at a symposium on governance.

The federal government already backs legislation that would repeal parts of the Indian Act. But First Nations have generally disagreed with what they say is a heavy-handed approach that perpetuates paternalistic treatment by Ottawa.

"Government's response has often been limited, narrow, piecemeal and unilateral," Atleo said in his first major attempt since he was re-elected last summer to set out a blueprint for First Nations self-governance.

He wants a thorough audit of all aboriginal policies to see if they are compatible with the Constitution's recognition of aboriginal rights.

"Yes, the Indian Act and the Indian Act bureaucracy must be fundamentally and finally eliminated. But ... attempts to tinker or impose will not work," Atleo said.

Instead, First Nations must be equal partners in designing a path towards self-government, Atleo said. First Nations leaders need to develop their own capacity to govern, and eventually oversee all major functions of a state: citizenship, justice, economic development, health, education and social services.

Atleo also wants to speed up resolution of comprehensive land claims. Ottawa has decided to walk away from claims that are taking too long to settle, while the AFN wants to see a fundamental reform of the process that would more fully recognize aboriginal rights.

"The economic imperative makes this just common sense for any government of any stripe to be compelled to resolve," he said.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in investment in natural resources is at stake, since companies are often not certain who owns the land and resources they want to develop, he added.

Atleo also called for a code of conduct to guide Ottawa in fulfilling its responsibilities to First Nations. For now, the courts have recognized that the Crown must act honourably in dealing with aboriginal communities, but that edict lacks definition.

"Canada continues to not even have a policy or approach to implement or monitor its treaty relationship with First Nations, even though the treaties are the founding documents of this country," he said.

"This is essential and a requirement for the implementation of the spirit and intent of the treaties."

And he wants to dump the massive Department of Aboriginal Affairs, replacing it with a First Nations auditor general, a treaty commissioner and a smaller department to monitor the First Nation-Crown relationship.

As it stands, the department is a massive bureaucracy that costs a billion dollars a year and does little for the living conditions of aboriginal peoples, he said.

"The clock is now ticking, with increasing pressure on lands and resources and increasing frustration and tension," Atleo said.

"We have seen the tragedies that explode when patience runs out."