From Frustration to Hope – Balancing Traditional Aboriginal Values with Pressing Social Needs

On Tuesday, January 19, 2010, I attended a breakfast event at the Toronto Board of Trade (BOT). The purpose of the event was to hear Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak about how we can partner to improve First Nation economies. The event was hosted by the BOT and emceed by Clint Davis, the President and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). Clint Davis is from Nunatsiavut (Newfoundland and Labrador) and Chief Atleo is from Ahousaht (British Columbia). Chief Atleo gave a moving speech that one would not expect given the topic of Aboriginal business. He referred to the many life lessons he received from his family growing up and especially those of his late grandmother. Listening to Chief Atleo make the connections between the traditions, teachings and current issues faced by First Nations, reinforced in my mind the need for Aboriginal communities to not be so quick to abandon traditional values, ethics and lessons for the lure of economic development and quick settlements. Economic development is important for most, if not all Aboriginal communities, but its importance cannot be seen in isolation from other goals which are important to Aboriginal peoples like: climate change, conservation, protection of traditional territories, community healing and wellness, education, maintaining the integrity of families, the education and security of our children, self-determination, and respect for our treaty relationships, for example. If a singular focus is made on economic development, then there would be no issue with the environmental destruction that comes with oil sand projects, hydro dams, gas lines, and diamond mining because the local Aboriginal people would be employed and this generation might enjoy some financial benefits. However, given that economic development is only part of a bigger picture for self-determining Aboriginal Nations which are healthy, vibrant and thriving, a proper balance must be made. In my opinion, Chief Atleo is not only aware of these other issues, but he ensures to include those in his priorities which are reflected in his speeches. It is his ability to turn a negative into a positive or to tackle politically sticky issues and offer hope for the future that he makes him a unique leader. When Chief Atleo spoke at the BOT, he didn’t focus solely on economic development, he explained that concern and action on the crisis of climate change is also necessary. Similarly, he argued that while education was used in the past to disempower and assimilate our people, we can now use education to empower our people, relearn our languages and traditions, and build capacity within our communities to revitalize our Nations. In so doing, Chief Atleo was also cognizant of the other pressing social issues that we have to address related to housing, health, treaties, land, murdered and missing women and so on. Overlaid on top of all this are the hurtful divisions which we: both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples alike, have inherited. He told the audience that none of us enacted the Indian Act, but we are left with very real divisions like Status and Non-Status Indians and on and off-reserve people. He acknowledged that these divisions were imposed upon us and that we have to find a way to address these inequities as we move forward. At the same time, he also said that some of things we consider divisions, could actually be considered strengths. For example, having Aboriginal people living, working and succeeding both on and off-reserve can be a significant strength for Aboriginal communities and we should be looking for ways to work together on that basis. I was at the United Nations headquarters in New York last week at an Indigenous Experts meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The topic was how state development impacts indigenous identity and culture, what the key issues are and how to resolve some of them. Indigenous peoples from around the world were generally of the mind that economic development can proceed so long as we remember that it is not our sole focus: i.e., increasing our salaries or our bank accounts for this generation can never be more important than protecting our wildlife, our rivers and water sources, and the integrity of of the land within our territories. Chief Atleo appears to be in sync with international indigenous objectives as he balances our social needs (economic development, relations with Canada) with our core values as Aboriginal peoples (protecting the land and natural resources). Perhaps by refocusing on the traditional values that made us Mi’kmaq, Cree, Nuu-chah-nulth, or Mohawk Nations, and aligning our priorities with rebuilding and revitalizing those Nations, we will have respected what our ancestors fought so hard to protect and leave a strong legacy for our future generations that they will be proud to carry forward. I think Chief Atleo offers just that kind of hope for all Aboriginal peoples – on and off-reserve, and status and non-status alike – and I, for one, will be watching his progress in the coming months/years.