Potlatches begin with Elders speaking while listeners eat, so the teachings and good feelings can enter with the food. The teachings nourish the soul, spirit, and heart, while the food nourishes the body.


Shawn Atleo with student Sara Daigle. Photo by Molly Barrieau

“Plus, if it’s really tasty, you’re quiet,” joked Shawn Atleo, former National Chief of Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and former Chancellor of VIU.

Atleo served as National Chief from 2009-2014 and was named Chancellor of VIU in 2008, becoming the first university chancellor of Aboriginal heritage in BC’s history.

On March 8, Atleo spoke about World Indigenous Connections in post-secondary institutions while a full Gathering Place enjoyed hot soup and bannock.

He highlighted the progress of VIU in relation to Indigenous recognition and education, motioning to the very building that he spoke in and the totem poles that stand outside of it. “This all wasn’t here that long ago,” he said. “And this is the first institution in the entire country to recognize Indigenous Elders as faculty.”

Atleo first began questioning the impact global influences can have on small Indigenous populations after being exposed to the realities of fish farming. “I remember wondering, ‘How does a Norwegian-owned, Chilean-operated company that farms Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean come to be in front of my own [west coast Vancouver Island] village?’”

From there, and throughout his global Master’s Degree in Education, Atleo further questioned the realms of neo-liberalism, cultural hegemony, and globalization. “I ended up in political work because I couldn’t hold myself back,” he said. “I didn’t intend to be in that kind of political realm because it grinds against so much I feel about the world. I’ve seen things I sometimes wish I haven’t seen, but they’re realities. We have to expose them.”

Atleo’s journey into elected politics at the provincial level began in 2003 when former Prime Minister Paul Martin asked him to join him in Mexico for his meeting with former US president George Bush and the 32 other presidents and prime ministers of North American states. When the topic came to Indigenous people, and Martin asked Atleo how Canada was doing in relation to First Nations, Atleo recalls saying, “‘I’m not sure if that’s the question we should be asking. The question we should be asking is why, out of these 34 people, am I the only Indigenous person here?’”

After that, once Atleo was elected as Chief of the AFN in 2009, Stephen Harper was in power for Atleo’s entire time in office. “It wasn’t always easy,” Atleo said. “Leadership is rewarding, but it’s extremely challenging.”

Sara Daigle, an Aboriginal VIU student upgrading for her Bachelors of Science in Nursing, was skeptical of coming to hear Atleo because of her feelings towards Canada’s federal government. At the end of his talk, she asked Atleo how she could best retain her Indigenous culture from home in the Kootenays while studying at VIU.

Atleo said it must be a joint effort in continuing to make progress and integrate Aboriginal culture into institutions. “VIU must become more than an institution that develops human capital for market economies,” he said. “It must be an institution that supports and encourages actors for a more civil society. Within the institution, we bring encouragement that it continues to transform integrated vertically and horizontally Indigenous values in every area of study, not just First Nations studies.”

Atleo pointed out that progress is still very recent; while VIU is not perfect, it is still leading in the country in relation to Indigenous education, as well as the representation of over 80 countries on its campuses.

“This is a global conversation,” he said, “and we are on the comeback trail of Indigenous people.”