CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A Pacific coast native leader who says improving education is key to solving the poverty and social ills of Canada’s Indians was picked on Thursday as chief of the country’s largest aboriginal group.
Shawn Atleo was elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations after an all-night convention vote in Calgary, Alberta, that was finally decided when his last rival bowed out after eight rounds of deadlocked balloting.
Atleo, 42, is a businessman and hereditary chief of the Ahousahta First Nation, a small native band on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He replaces national chief Phil Fontaine, who decided not to seek a fourth term as the top advocate for the country’s 1.2 million native people.
The post of national chief gives Atleo no legal power, but makes Atleo’s a prominent voice in the national political debate over issues such as energy and economic development in vast areas of traditional Indian territories.
Top issues for the AFN are improving the quality of health care in Indian communities, which lags that in the rest of the country, and bolstering economic development.
Native Indians represent only about 3 percent of Canada’s population, but their poverty rate is significantly higher than for the rest of the country. The native population in the country’s prisons is also disproportionately high.
Atleo has said Indian bands needed to improve education and skills training to overcome social problems caused by past government policies, such as the defunct residential school program that is the subject of a stalled “truth and reconciliation” commission.
Atleo, who also uses the indigenous name of A-in-chut, said Canada’s aboriginal people need to strengthen knowledge of their own history and languages.
Atleo led throughout the balloting but was still short of the 60 percent of the convention vote needed to win when the last of four opponents, Perry Bellegarde of Saskatchewan, conceded defeat.
Exhausted convention delegates, who are chiefs and elders from Indian bands across Canada, celebrated the final outcome with beating drums, dancing and sweet grass ceremonies.
Canada’s aboriginal population also includes Metis people and the Inuit of the Arctic regions, but they are not part of the Assembly of First Nations.
Reporting by Todd Korol, Jeffrey Jones, Allan Dowd, Editing by Frank McGurty