Prime Minister Stephen Harper will keep a year-old commitment to sit down with the chiefs of Canada’s first nations, whose people are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country.
But neither Mr. Harper nor Shawn Atleo, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, mentioned Attawapiskat – the remote Northern Ontario community currently in the grip of a housing crisis – during brief remarks at the start of a closed-door meeting Thursday, or in statements they released afterwards.
After meeting with Mr. Atleo, Mr. Harper announced a conference of government and first nations leaders on Jan. 24 in the Ottawa area.
It will be the first time that the Prime Minister has officially met first nations leaders since his Conservative party took office in 2006. Attawapiskat drew national and worldwide attention last month when it declared a state of emergency over its deplorable living conditions.
In a subsequent a news release, Mr. Atleo made a veiled reference to the Cree community, saying: “We have communities in crisis that need action now, but we must stop lurching from crisis to crisis” Instead, he urged “action and commitment to address systemic problems.”
The Assembly of First Nations requested the meeting planned for Jan. 24 a year and a half ago. Mr. Harper agreed to participate in a letter to Mr. Atleo last December. It has taken almost a year to pick a time and place.
The two sides agreed to discuss ways to integrate members of Canada’s first nations communities further into the social and economic life of the country. They will also talk about strategies for improving the quality of life on reserves like Attawapiskat.
First nations education, a priority of the Harper government’s aboriginal agenda, is expected to be a major focus of the conversation.
The opening remarks and the closing sessions will be webcast and first nations leaders from across the country will be able to participate in real time using web technology.
Mr. Atleo said on Thursday that it is time to reset the relationship between the federal government and the first nations.
“I think all of us inherited a very difficult past,” he told the Prime Minister at the start of their meeting. With a new understanding, “we can begin to look forward to supporting the unleashing of potential of our young people, the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population.”
Federal officials and the Red Cross arrived in Attawapiskat this week to bring relief to people who are living in plywood shacks without adequate heat or running water.
Mr. Harper said his government will provide emergency assistance, but has also decided to take management of the millions of dollars that the community receives each year from the federal government out of the hands of the local council.
Ottawa, he said, has given more than $90-million to Attawapiskat since 2006, and the government will conduct an audit to find out why that has not brought better results for the people who live there.
The opposition complained on Thursday that Attawapiskat and other aboriginal communities get half as much from the federal government as the rest of the population for things like health, education, social development and infrastructure.
“Why is he blaming the community?” asked Nycole Turmel, Interim Leader of the New Democratic Party.
Mr. Harper replied that more services and infrastructure and better management are needed. “The government,” he said, “will ensure both of those things are dealt with.”