Chiefs departing a hastily arranged meeting with Stephen Harper say the Prime Minister assured them that this week’s Crown-first-nations summit will be part of an ongoing process to resolve the urgent and complex issues facing Canada’s native communities.
Mr. Harper “did tell us that, on many issues, [he is]prepared to sit down further, that this was not the end of our discussions with him,” said Charles Weasel Head, the grand Chief of Treaty 7 in Alberta. A large number of first-nations leaders had been looking for such a commitment.
Many of the 30 chiefs who were invited to the closed-door gathering late Monday afternoon asked Mr. Harper for a first ministers’ meeting that would include premiers and territorial leaders – an event that many see as an essential precursor to revenue-sharing from resources on their traditional territories.
The Prime Minister’s response to that request was “very general,” said Mr. Weasel Head. But, he added, a majority of the chiefs still view the Tuesday summit as an “important step forward” and “an opportunity at least that we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”
The wide range of challenging issues raised by the senior chiefs in the room underscores the difficulty both sides face in finding success at the end of the summit.
In Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Mr. Harper has found an ally for a more practical focus on education and small land changes that boost economic development. Yet many other AFN chiefs are determined to force more challenging issues like treaty rights onto the agenda.
The meeting on Monday at the Prime Minister’s office was arranged after many chiefs complained to the AFN that they would get limited access to Mr. Harper at the summit.
The summit schedule had been kept secret, even from the invited participants, and many of the chiefs were angry to learn that the Prime Minister planned to attend the day-long event only until noon. They were not consoled by the fact that about a dozen cabinet ministers plan to stay to represent the government during more detailed policy sessions after the lunch break.
Some chiefs also said they were surprised at the seemingly disorganized nature of this week’s gathering, given that it has been under discussion for more than a year. It is Mr. Harper’s first meeting with a large national group of first nations leaders since the Conservatives won government six years ago.
No substantive negotiations were conducted between the government and the AFN before the meeting, so most chiefs say they do not expect concrete announcements. Rather, the agenda suggests agreements to press ahead on issues such as land rights, education and economic development.
Whether Tuesday’s meeting is viewed as a success among first nations could affect Mr. Atleo’s future as chief of the AFN. His three-year term expires this year, and he’s expected to seek re-election when Canada’s more than 600 chiefs gather for a leadership vote in Toronto in July.
Ghislain Picard, the AFN regional chief for Quebec, acknowledged that the outcome of this week’s meeting will influence the decisions of some.
“Obviously, any national chief is put in a position where they have to deliver something,” he said.
Ovide Mercredi, one of Mr. Atleo’s predecessors as AFN leader, said he did not believe that people would blame the National Chief if little is accomplished. “I don’t see any evidence of politicking right now,” he said.
Even so, he said the schedule as it was planned by the AFN and the government was unsatisfactory because it did not give the chiefs a chance to talk directly with the Prime Minister about the issues facing their people.
For that reason, Mr. Mercredi said, the Monday meeting may have been just as important as the summit on Tuesday. It allowed “our elected representatives to interface directly with the Prime Minister and they wouldn’t have had that chance tomorrow,” he said.
Although the late-afternoon roundtable may have eased some concern about the chiefs’ lack of access to the Prime Minister, there is still much suspicion on the part of the first nations about the government’s willingness to do business differently than it has in the past.
Grand Chief Bill Erasmus of the Northwest Territories said the summit will be a success if both sides walk away with a clear understanding of their relationship and how to proceed toward resolving the problems that face first nations.
If the Prime Minister stays until lunchtime, “It’s enough to get this going,” he said.
“But if the Prime Minister came and made his speech and left, I would encourage everyone in the room to get up and leave,” Mr. Erasmus said. “It’s like inviting us for supper, having an appetizer and saying sorry, I don’t have time to stay for the rest.”
According to Chief Stewart Phillip of the union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Prime Minister's brief remarks at the end of Monday's meeting included a suggestion that the chiefs raise their issues with their local MPs.
"I thought it a bit strange," said Mr. Phillip. "The whole purpose of the Crown-first nation gathering was to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister... It was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser."