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National chief's illness will delay, but not derail, talks with Harper: Duncan

OTTAWA - A sudden medical leave announced Monday by the head of Canada's largest aboriginal organization will delay — but not derail — pivotal talks between First Nations and Stephen Harper, says Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo addresses a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Jan.10, 2013. Atleo says he is taking a "brief" medical leave from his job as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, under doctor's orders. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - A sudden medical leave announced Monday by the head of Canada's largest aboriginal organization will delay — but not derail — pivotal talks between First Nations and Stephen Harper, says Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Duncan said there's little hope a one-on-one meeting between Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo can still take place by Jan. 24 — a date that was floated during their contentious meetings last week.

The two leaders had agreed to talk to their respective teams and regroup soon in order to set out a concrete plan to implement the agreements reached last week on re-examining ancient treaties and aboriginal rights.

Duncan said he does not expect Atleo to return to work for at least another two weeks. Still, he said backroom work on the agreements reached last Friday will continue as planned, involving top officials from the government and the Assembly of First Nations.

"No one has got certainty for when the national chief will return, but I took it that it would be at least two weeks away," Duncan said. "But we were thinking ... it would be at least that long before any further meeting got underway."

Atleo announced Monday that his doctor has ordered him to take a "brief" sick leave despite the AFN being in the midst of a political crisis, with some chiefs and First Nations citizens questioning the group's authority.

Atleo came down with the flu before Christmas and never had a chance to beat it, said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief for British Columbia and one of the key AFN officials tasked with mapping out how to implement the agreements with Harper to revisit treaty and aboriginal rights. She said Atleo could return in a matter of days.

Atleo said the meetings and frustrations over the past two weeks simply caught up with him.

"This weekend, my doctor ordered that I take some time now to rest and recover and I have agreed with my family that I do this now," he said in a statement.

"I will see you all very soon and will return re-invigorated and strengthened to work with you to drive this change together with all of you."

Atleo has been the target of much criticism from other chiefs and First Nations people for agreeing to meet with the prime minister last week.

After a week of intense meetings, Atleo had managed to pull together a consensus on what topics the meeting should address. But he was not able to persuade Harper to have Gov. Gen. David Johnston attend — a key demand of a faction of chiefs, including fasting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

Several leading chiefs said the assembly should have refused the meeting, because it didn't take place on their terms, and on their turf. Chiefs from Manitoba, Ontario, Northwest Territories and some from Saskatchewan boycotted the Harper meeting and instead protested in the streets outside the Prime Minister's Office.

After the meeting, criticism continued to pour in. And Spence insisted on maintaining her liquids-only protest, despite mounting calls for her to declare victory.

In a release issued on Monday evening, Spence explained she was continuing her fast because she still hoped for a meeting where First Nations leaders, the prime minister and Governor General were all present. Last week's meeting limited attendance to only thirty chiefs with a preset agenda, she said.

“It’s not our fundamental beliefs as Indigenous Peoples to close the door on other leaders who want to attend a meeting that will directly have an impact on their communities. This goes against our traditional values,” Spence said. “After reviewing the outcomes of last week’s meeting between AFN and the PM, nothing was really accomplished other than for more talks to occur in the future. Unfortunately, our Peoples don’t have time on our side.“

The pressure on Spence to end her protest, however, continues to mount.

"There is a growing sentiment and concern around her health, and a recognition that she can in fact leave with dignity," said Wilson-Raybould, pointing to the thousands of people who have rallied for First Nations rights across the country and to the commitments Harper has made.

"I would hope that Chief Spence would consider ending her hunger strike."

Atleo's absence will leave a big, if temporary, vacuum in Crown-First Nations politics.

Atleo was re-elected last summer for his second three-year term. He won solid backing despite his opponents saying that he was too cosy with Harper and the federal government.

And while the federal Conservatives don't think of him as a close ally, Harper made it clear Monday that he considers Atleo the point person on First Nations issues — especially as he gears up for a follow-up meeting with chiefs.

"I thought we had good discussions with a number of aboriginal leaders last week. Obviously we don't necessarily agree on everything, but I thought we had a good exchange of views," Harper said Monday in Montreal.

"I certainly look forward to further conversations, particularly with the national chief, when it's convenient for him to do so."

Atleo has named Regional Chief Roger Augustine, who represents chiefs from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, to chair and facilitate executive meetings in his absence. He said he has also asked senior staff to set up "working teams" to support the complicated preparations that are required to make good on the agreements reached last week with Harper.

But after taking the weekend to reflect on how to handle recent events, Idle No More activists say they are going ahead with a national day of protest this Wednesday — and taking pains to encourage peaceful, non-violent activity.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples issued a statement Monday urging would-be protesters and activists to ensure their actions are peaceful — and citing the 1995 police shooting death of native protester Dudley George at Ipperwash Park as a reminder to police of the potentially tragic consequences of unwarranted aggression.

"True Warriors protect the weak, and I ask our young people to not let frustration lead to unnecessary violence," said Ron Swain, national vice-chief with the congress.

"I understand that aboriginal rights, treaty rights (and) cultural integrity are issues to fight for, but in Canada we are fortunate to have the rule of law."

Most of Wednesday's events will be round dances, street marches, teach-ins and pamphlet campaigns, said Pam Palmater, a professor of indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto who ran last summer for national chief.

There will, however, likely be some temporary traffic disruption and border slowdowns, she added.

"The goal is not to inconvenience Canadians," Palmater said.

"We're trying to send a message to Harper that we're in this for the long haul and they have got to come to the table in a real way, not in a bullying kind of way where nothing gets accomplished."

Palmater accused Atleo of defying the wishes of a majority of chiefs by attending last week's meeting with Harper. But she wished him a speedy recovery all the same.