Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
OTTAWA - A Saskatchewan First Nations leader who ran to lead the Assembly of First Nations has suggested all chiefs need to set politics aside and stay united to get the federal government to recognize treaties and grave reserve poverty.
In 2009, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde lost on the eighth ballot when Shawn Atleo was ultimately elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations after a marathon voting session.
But that didn't stop Bellegarde from sitting shoulder to shoulder with his former competitor at a press conference earlier this week, despite open criticisms levelled at Atleo's less confrontational approach to dealing with the federal government.
Bellegarde made a deliberate move to stand alongside Atleo, even though the Saskatchewan chief didn't subsequently attend a high-profile Friday meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other aboriginal leaders.
He says all First Nations leaders share a common frustration that is fuelling nationwide demonstrations.
"We have been marginalized for far too long in society. Our lands and resources have been exploited," he said. "People are saying that's got to stop."
A number of chiefs and grassroots protesters openly hammered Atleo and said he should boycott the Friday meeting with Harper because it didn't involve Gov. Gen. David Johnston and other chiefs who all wanted to be part of discussions.
This call for a joint conversation has been a central request of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a personal protest at Ottawa's Victoria Island for 33 days. She has vowed to continue a liquid diet until her terms are agreed to.
The RCMP estimates about 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside Harper's office in Ottawa on Friday to protest the talks.
Since the discussions took place, the government has vowed to engage in a high level of dialogue on aboriginal affairs and it committed to additional meetings with Atleo in the weeks to come.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan made it clear, however, that the government will not freeze two budget bills which have been openly criticized by First Nations for changes including environmental assessment reforms. Two Alberta First Nations are challenging the bills in court.
The same group of chiefs who oppose Atleo - including some from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario - are among those planning a national day of action against the government.
Plans, set to be put into action on Wednesday, include shutting all the "corridors" of provinces and staging protests and blockades across the country.