By Lloyd Dolha
On August 5th, newly elected Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Shawn Atleo forged an important consensus among First Ministers at a meeting of the of the nation’s premiers in Regina. Atleo, 42, has a Masters in Education and is a hereditary chief from Ahousat on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He is a founding member of the BC First Nations Leadership Council and the first Aboriginal chancellor of a BC university. Atleo attended the Council of the Federation meeting along with representatives from other national Aboriginal organizations. The meeting represented the sixth consecutive time that the AFN has participated in the premier’s Council.
National Chief Atleo encouraged the premiers to commit to developing common interests, as well as sustaining and tracking progress between meetings. He called on the provinces and territories to work cooperatively with First Nations to address the long list of outstanding inter-jurisdictional issues including the H1N1 flu virus, funding for social programs, and lands and resources issues.
The newly elected national chief said he’s looking for a “plan for action” on the H1N1 flu (swine flu), which is a particular concern in isolated First Nations communities. “We need to make sure that between jurisdictions that we have everybody working together and on the same page to make sure that communities have the resources needed to take care of their citizens,” Atleo said. He feels a partnership between Aboriginal groups, the provinces, and the federal government could ensure proper planning for a surge in flu cases. “In effect, we’re asking for help,” he said. “We want to make sure that the most vulnerable of our population, the indigenous people of this country, are well-served.”
In late July, First Nations leaders in remote northern Manitoba communities where H1N1 is hitting particularly hard said they worry the pandemic will worsen before they’re armed with the same arsenal of tools that helped a nearby Ontario reserve “stop flu in its tracks.” Two months after the first sick patients were airlifted from isolated Manitoba reserves such as St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill, the chiefs said they are still in the dark about whether drugs such as Tamiflu will be available should H1N1 resurface in the coming weeks.
There were 24 confirmed cases of H1N1 in St. Theresa Point, which is about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, and another seven confirmed cases in nearby Garden Hill. The chiefs are asking why their communities received next to no antiviral drugs, when the northwestern Ontario First Nation of Sandy Lake was given 1,800 doses to control an H1N1 outbreak there. According to National Chief Atleo, “In order to look forward, we must ensure that we all shoulder the collective responsibility, bring forward the required leadership, investment, and accountability to all of the people of Canada. We are all treaty people and we all share in this land,” he said.
At the conclusion of meeting, Premier Wall announced the formation of an Aboriginal Affairs Ministers Working Group to develop issues and interests towards a proposed First Ministers Meeting in November 2010. This commitment represents a significant agreement. National Chief Atleo feels an efficient and effective process can maximize outcomes for every First Nation across Canada, and appreciates the support of his colleagues. “We will begin a concerted effort to fully engage all of our people and all of our communities in this important opportunity,” he said. “We must and we will lead this effort ensuring that our treaties and agreements are fully implemented and our governments respected and supported.”
Chief Atleo encouraged all premiers to take steps to demonstrate leadership and work toward solid outcomes. “I believe this is our time,” he said, “a time for Indigenous peoples to come together in recognition and respect to lead the change needed for all people to live sustainably and in harmony. Today’s meeting gives me added hope and optimism that we are on the right track.”
A senior Manitoba Health official said its stockpile of H1N1 antiviral drugs has been made available to Health Canada for distribution among the province’s First Nation communities. Concerns about the H1N1 virus have prompted a handful of First Nations to stay away from the upcoming Aboriginal Summer Games. Some 3,200 athletes (most of them teenagers) along with coaches, parents, and supporters are set to participate in the games, which opened on August 9th at the Onion Lake Cree Nation about 50 kilometres north of Lloydminster. Organizers said that out of 80 reserve communities, they have heard from just four who have decided not to participate. “It is very unfortunate,” Kelly Villeneuve, co-coordinator for the games, said of the absence of an estimated 280 youngsters. “However we do have to respect the wishes of those parents.”
Villeneuve said extensive planning took place to ensure the sporting event would not affected by the flu. For starters, athletes were being screened at clinics in their home communities before heading out to the games. Additional health screening will also be available at the games site, where nurses will watch flu symptoms and will refer the person to a doctor if needed. Villeneuve added that $20,000 has been budgeted for on-site hand sanitizers and washing stations to help reduce the spread of germs.