National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo ~ 34th AFN Annual General Assembly Opening Remarks ~ Stronger Together for Our Children Tomorrow

July 16, 2013

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July 16 - 18, 2013 | Whitehorse, Yukon


I welcome you all to the Annual General Assembly.  This is our 34th annual meeting and, in reality, we are now marking more than four decades of annual meetings as the Indigenous nations of Canada. 

I thank our hosts, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council, for welcoming us to Tagish Kwan territory, home of the Southern Tutchone.  It is an honour to be here.  I look forward to an energizing meeting with First Nations leaders and citizens from coast to coast to coast. This is the first time in 21 years that we’ve gathered here … and what an incredible experience we are already having – don’t you agree ? 

As we heard and will see over the coming days, Yukon First Nations are driving success and partnerships based on their rights and responsibilities. Just last week White River successfully challenged and won an important court battle affirming their full right to meaningful consultation required for their consent on resource development. 

And just days ago, Trondek Hwechin achieved an agreement to ensure their language and culture is embedded in every aspect of education for their peoples and others. 

As we heard – this is the 20th anniversary of the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, by the people – for the people who bore the name: “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow.” A powerful vision that speaks to all of us. 

Once again, we gather as nations and as leaders to deliberate with one another and set out our plans and strategies for the days, weeks and months ahead. 

We gather, as always, facing critical and urgent issues that command our attention and demand action! 

We gather knowing that it is our time to stand strong on our rights, our title and our Treaties.  And we gather knowing that is time to stand strong together! 

As National Chief, a key part of my work is accepting invitations to meet with you in your communities and territories.  I see firsthand the gains we are making and the challenges we’re facing. 

I know many of us were struck by the massive flooding in Alberta.  While downtown Calgary captured most of the headlines, a number of First Nation communities were hit hard by the rising waters.  I was in Treaty 7 territory three times in recent weeks and spoke to with the leaders and citizens affected by the flooding.  It is overwhelming to witness this kind of natural disaster in person. 

I recall talking with families in Tsuu Tina, Morley and Siksika – people devastated by their losses and facing an uncertain future.  Yet – what was most remarkable was seeing the incredible courage and kindness of a community coming together – hearing  about people checking in on one another, making sure the Elders and children are cared for and are safe... the volunteers and the support that keeps the spirit strong. 

This spirit was never lost, even though so many material possessions were. And, it is this spirit that the Chiefs and their citizens harnessed to get the attention they need. 

They got the attention of the province and the federal government and demanded they work together to save their communities, their traditional territory that sustains them through the generations.  Now the hard work of recovery and rebuilding and our continued support every step of the way is needed. 

I say this because it was clear to me that in times of crisis, when everyone needs one another, we can quickly cut through the barriers and gaps that block action – the physical, political and jurisdictional barriers seemingly melt away. 

Our agenda, the First Nations agenda, requires that everyone come together … just as Treaty 7 pulled First Nations and their neighbours together to deal with the rising water. 

One of the Treaty 7 Elders said at a meeting to discuss the flooding,  “the treaty relationship demands that we do this work, that we come together among our own Nations and that government comes to the table respectfully to fulfill its duties as partner to the relationship.  We all have a role – this must be honoured and respected.” 

This takes us back to the spirit that was very much evident at the time for those that engaged in Treaty. It is the way of our Nations throughout the country.  

We have inherent responsibility to our lands, waters and peoples – and we have inherent rights as Nations to work in full respect with one another and as equal partners with other governments. 

This must be the way we engage with one another every single day. 

I look around and I see today that beyond the headlines of floods and fires, many of our Nations are in a perpetual state of crisis. 

Our people are crammed into crumbling homes in collapsing communities. 

Almost half of our children are living in poverty. We have more children in care right now than at that the height of the residential schools.  Our young people are more likely to end up in jail than to graduate. 

The statistics are stark and sobering and we don’t need to recite them again but we can ask the Canadian government and all Canadians: is this the Canada they want to stand for?  Is this the kind of country they believe in? 

Our organizations, all of them – including AFN – Tribal Councils and PTOs are challenged by constantly diminishing and imposed funding cuts – all part of a broken system that creates demands for more with fewer resources. 

Our goal, our priority, our strategy is to find the ways to empower and support one another. This is a call to unity. 

This is not a call that suggests we are all the same.  We are not.  It does not mean that we must march in lock-step or abandon our diversity. 

Unity means first and foremost, understanding and respecting our diversity.  It means we must listen and understand one another.  It means driving towards our common values and shared interests and priorities. 

That is how we drive change.  That is how we smash the status quo. 

This is how we break past the barriers and gaps.  This is how we push progress and compel concrete action. 

We are often united in opposition.  We know what we don’t want.  We reject top-down approaches and one-size-fits-all attitudes.  Those will never work for peoples as rich and diverse as our nations. 

This is why in 2010, I challenged the government to work with us to move beyond the Indian Act. 

 We know what we oppose.  But that is only half the fight. 

This includes looking at how we are structured and how we operate as an organization of and for First Nations.  The AFN continually renews itself – and must renew itself – as we move out of the darkness of colonialism into the light of nation-building. 

It is up to our leaders and citizens to step up and take responsibility for our future and for our lives.  We must set our own agenda and we must make it happen. 

We must consider every aspect of our organization to be inclusive, respectful – to maximize our resources, increase our independence and – overall our sustainability consistent with the vision and mandate provided by you. 

We have a very full and comprehensive agenda before us this week.  

In each of these areas, we need to do the hard work of understanding one another, respecting one another’s challenges and chart clear strategies to support one another’s efforts to drive change. 

Our work in Education is clear and confirmed.  We echo our Elders who decades ago began the call for First Nations control of First Nations education. 

We do not want unilaterally imposed legislation delivered from on high by the government.  We want to create our own systems that are sustainable, that support our childrens’ success and that value their languages and cultures. 

Yes, we need more resources.  Our children are under-funded compared to students in provincial schools.  It is about fair and equitable resources…but it is not only about more resources. 

We must blanket our children in proper systems and full supports.  The Mi'kmaw Education Authority  – in Nova Scotia is a living, dynamic example that, by coming together, wrestling full control away from government, and pressing for government agreement and support – First Nations can propel their learners to incredible success that is the cornerstone of their pride as nations and an anchor to their resurgence and success as Nations. 

They are exceeding the provincial standards and are hitting an almost 90% high school graduation rate, well above the provincial average.  And equally important, these are learners equipped with all the skills and knowledge to compete in the 21st century economy yet fully versed in their traditional teachings, language and culture. This – very much the theme of the Yukon First Nation high school grad I attended here in Whitehorse last month. 

This is what we all need to strive for.  And it is happening, but we need a new approach that makes these school systems and these young people not the exception but our expectation

We are demanding and we will build these systems because the right to educate our children is a fundamental right. 

Let me be clear, as I have said many times before, it has always been the position of the AFN and continues to be the position that Treaty leaders and citizens take the lead on implementing their Treaty – not AFN and not the National Chief.  Any discussions on Treaty implementation must be Treaty-by-Treaty, nation-to-nation.  The AFN is not a signatory to any Treaty and it is not the role of the National Chief to negotiate the implementation or enforcement of any Treaty. 

The role of the AFN is to stand with the Treaty Nations in a supporting role and assist in any and all efforts to compel the federal government – and all governments – to respect and honour the Treaties. 

This is the nature of the work mandated to the AFN by Chiefs-in-Assembly under resolution #07-2010.  This is why we convened the National Treaty Forum last March, and the Treaty leaders are now driving the agenda. 

A number of Treaty regions are pressing forward and engaging with the Crown and calling on Canada – in some cases challenging Canada – to come to the table and start the difficult but absolutely fundamental work of Treaty implementation. This means nothing less than giving life to the spirit and intent of the Treaties as understood by our Elders and ancestors who entered into these agreements to protect our lands, our traditional territories, our peoples and our ways of life. 

And we express our full support for the peace and friendship treaties, pre confederation treaties and the numbered treaties – some of who gather right now in treaty 6 territory.  Yesterday we offered sacred medicine in ceremony with the Elders to help guide us to find the way to support one another in full respect. 

The Elders including those from our host region shared a prophecy of all nations gathering in the north as a place of healing and encouraged us to find answers and inspiration in the wisdom of the ancestors. And the national Executive and I joined together and extended greetings and expressions of respect and support to those Treaties 1-11 nations gathering this week. 

This is what we mean by unity – supporting and respecting one another to pursue our own paths to progress and fulfillment. 

We all have rights and responsibilities.  I personally know what it means to fight for our rights and give life to those rights – whether demonstrating in our canoes out on the waters or on the lands to drive awareness or fighting (and winning) a decade long fight to affirm our commercial right to fishing back home.  I stand side-by-side with you in these fights and I know that we will win when we stand strong together. 

Central to our work is our effort to press for agreements to be upheld and fundamental reform to Comprehensive Claims.  There is no doubt that current government policy is completely inadequate and inconsistent with legal developments.  We finally have agreement on the need for reform, a clear timeline and process to achieve this change – we will press for and be unrelenting in our pursuit of full recognition and reconciliation and a final and permanent end to extinguishment and denial. 

As mandated by you, we are joining the Tsilhqot’in Nation as intervenors in their Supreme Court Case to once and for all banish the notions of terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery as racist relics of the colonial past that have no place in the modern world – we stand firm in insisting that Canada must recognize, respect and reconcile our rights.  These are fundamental conditions moving forward – fundamental to respect our history and our rights, and fundamental to our shared future. 

Across all areas and territories we can work together based on respect for our diversity while supporting one another on a path to our shared goals.

We will not play the tired old games of divide and conquer. 

Never forget that those that want to hold us back, relish nothing more than when we fight amongst ourselves, and fear nothing more than when we stand together strong and united. 

We will all mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation this year, a Proclamation which led to the Treaty of Niagara in 1764, where a nation-to-nation relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples was renewed and the Covenant Chain of Friendship was affirmed. 

The Royal Proclamation and more importantly the Treaty of Niagara established recognition and protection of Indigenous rights as a clear requirement and foundation for development of this land. Canada exists today because of relations established and the good will and good faith of the Indigenous nations.  

We will push for respect of our agreements and our original relationships on all fronts. 

With governments – we are engaging in political outreach to ALL parties because our agenda goes beyond any one party and any one Prime Minister.  We are using advocacy and action – such as at the upcoming meeting of all provincial premiers and Territorial leaders at the Council of the Federation later this month where we will press for action on murdered and missing Indigenous women, safety and emergency preparedness.  . 

We are pressing the public and private sector, informing Canadian citizens of their true history and telling them that strong First Nations make a strong Canada. 

The private sector is realizing that First Nations have a key role in any development that’s planned in and around their traditional territories.  These industries are in turn pressing the government for real change based on Free, Prior and Informed Consent and, where First Nations see development as respectful, responsible and sustainable, real revenue sharing arrangements. 

We are taking our message to the international community, including the recent gathering in advance of the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to be held in New York City in 2014.  We will ensure that the upcoming visits of the UN observers including the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples results in a mirror being held up for Canada – a moment of truth and a moment for us to set out our plans, conditions and requirements for success led by and for our Nations. 

Most importantly, we will stand with our own people who are pressing forward for action. 

We’ve all been inspired and energized by the actions of Idle No More, and other movements led by the women, inspired by the people and energized by the youth. 

Groups like the incredibly brave, focused and humble leaders – the young Cree from Nishiyuu. 

I am also inspired by what I see visiting First Nations across the country – like here in the Yukon – a place where 40 years of constant effort has achieved so much -  and they continue their hard work and dedication for their peoples. 

This is a critical time.  There is energy in the air.  We are demanding change on our terms to reach our goals. 

We will occupy the field, occupy the ground and give expression and action to our rights. 

Just as I witnessed in the determination of the young volunteers I met in Morley helping keep their people safe 

…and heard in the sounds of the Mi’kmaw language in every corner of their bright new school 

…and saw in the eyes of the young men and women seizing every opportunity at “I-count” or Otter River Cree school in Manitoba this past spring 

… and here where I visited with renowned veteran and winner of the INDSPIRE lifetime achievement award 96 year old Alex Van Bibber together with young Jedryk. … 

I am completely confident in our success because I am confident in our peoples and I am confident in you. 

We will indeed emerge stronger together today, for our children tomorrow! 

Let me leave you with the words of a leader from a land – continents away - but yet tied directly to our struggle - a true indigenous leader for the world.  Nelson Mandela celebrates his 95th birthday this week and for all of us engaged in struggle, his words hold great inspiration and encouragement – as he said:  “It always seems impossible until it's done”  

Kleco!  Kleco!

Assembly of First Nations