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Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

John Ibbitson

Conservatives have faith in their first-nations agenda. But what is it? Add to ...

With all of the attention devoted to Idle No More, Chief Theresa Spence, schisms within the Assembly of First Nations and blockades and threats of blockades, one perspective has been overlooked: the government’s.

This is strange, because the Government of Canada is at the heart of this conflict. A great many people have told Stephen Harper what he should or must do in answer to native demands; very few seem curious about what he actually intends to do.

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In several conversations in which it was agreed not to use names or quotations, those intentions emerged.

In essence, the Conservatives have a first-nations agenda, and they intend to continue implementing it, because they believe a majority of the chiefs support it.

That agenda has three prongs:

1) Work with bands, companies and provincial governments to reach economic development agreements, especially where natural resources are involved.

The Harper government agrees that natural-resource development can’t and shouldn’t go ahead without clear economic-development benefits for associated first nations, and that Ottawa, the provinces and the private sector should be working with those first nations to reach agreements.

2) Identify “productive tables” – land claim and self-government negotiations (there are 93 underway) where a deal is realistically possible – and push for a settlement.

Too often lawyers and consultants are the only ones who benefit from protracted negotiations over land and self-government claims. Officials are at work identifying those negotiations where a deal might reasonably be reached. The goal will be to then push for final agreements.

3) Press ahead with a First Nations Education Act, with an ultimate goal of one day having a native-run but provincial-calibre school on every native reserve.

Earlier this month, consultations began with native communities on the act, which the government is committed to having in place by 2014. It would, on a strictly voluntary basis, allow bands to create regional or provincial native school boards that would pool resources to build and staff schools and develop a native-centric curriculum that met provincial standards.

Some chiefs, and many within the Idle No More movement, will reject that agenda as parochial and far too limited. It is a far cry from what Chief Spence, who is ending her hunger strike, is demanding. But Chief Spence is but one chief.

The attitudes and demands of native leaders defy pigeon-holing; each can better be described as somewhere along a spectrum. At one end are chiefs such as Derek Nepinak in Manitoba, who appears to be part an insurgency against National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo. They are strong supporters of chief Spence and Idle No More; some openly or tacitly support blockades and other acts of disruption. Native activists such as Pam Palmater are also in this group.

They demand nation-to-nation negotiations aimed at restoring effective native sovereignty over the territories they claim, with a native veto over any federal legislation that they believe could affect their rights or interests.

They are at loggerheads with this government, and always will be.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are people like Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross. As Mark Hume reported, the Haisla First Nation, Apache Canada Ltd., Chevron Canada Ltd. and the British Columbia and federal governments have collectively eliminated the final hurdles to a liquefied natural gas plant to be located on the reserve. The plant will generate billions of dollars in revenue for shareholders, taxpayers and the Haisla, while creating well-paying jobs on the reserve.

The rest of the 600-plus first nations reserves across the country vary in their opposition to the Harper government and its agenda, in the potential economic opportunity available to them, and in their willingness to exploit those opportunities.

The Conservatives believe that, beyond the noise of social protest, most native leaders are willing to work with the government on its three priorities, and that most Canadians will support those priorities.

The government could be wrong. Anger at decades of abuse and neglect could trump any willingness to co-operate. The Idle No More protests, the militant chiefs, the hunger strikers, could trump the compromises on which any agreements must be based.

The reputation of the Harper government for arrogance, indifference or outright hostility to the social-action forces ranged against it could convince most chiefs to simply walk away from the table.

We’ll know better whether the Harper first-nations agenda is realistic a year from now, which is a long time in politics, but a blink in the sorry history of Canada and its first peoples.

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