Direct talks between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and first nations leaders are near collapse before they have even begun.
A chief whose hunger strike has made her a hero of the native protest movement urged fellow chiefs on Wednesday to join her in a boycott of the event. At the same time, the Prime Minister signalled that he would attend only part of the Friday meeting, and some chiefs said they would walk out if that is the case. Nor are they happy that the government wants to limit the number of first-nations participants.
The talks were called to put the government back on a positive footing with first nations, as protests that began in December show no sign of abating. If the event is scuttled or unsatisfactory, native leaders say Canadians can expect prolonged unrest that will disrupt resource development.
The future of federal relations with Canada’s native people became even murkier this week after a court ruled that Ottawa is also responsible for Métis and non-status Indians.
Chiefs from across the country met at an Ottawa hotel on Wednesday to plot their strategy and to decide what outcomes they want from the meeting with Mr. Harper.
Theresa Spence, the Chief of Attawapiskat who has gone without all food but fish broth and herbal tea for more than four weeks to back her demand for the meeting, arrived mid-afternoon and was greeted with a standing ovation.
Ms. Spence had promised to end her hunger strike if the meeting was scheduled. Then she said she wanted positive results from it before she would eat again. On Wednesday, she said she would not go and urged the other chiefs to do the same because her demand that Governor-General David Johnston attend would not be met.
Governors-general do not usually get involved in the day-to-day business of Parliament, and courts have determined that the treaty obligations the Crown entered into were passed to the government at Confederation.
Ms. Spence, who refused to speak to reporters, has become a locus of the anger first-nations people have been expressing over long-standing issues including the upholding of treaty rights, the sharing of resource revenues and the imposition of federal legislation that they say will have negative consequences for native people.
A number of chiefs agreed with Ms. Spence that the meeting should not go ahead without Mr. Johnston.
And many said they were also unhappy to learn that Mr. Harper might be present for just half an hour at the beginning of the talks and half an hour at the end. When asked if that was Mr. Harper’s plan, spokesman Carl Valée replied: “Things are still being worked out at the moment.”
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), has attempted to quell the discontent of first-nations leaders by explaining that it is not a gathering but rather a working meeting and that there will be other, larger meetings in the future. But that has not appeased everyone.
Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, said the first nations asked for this meeting but Mr. Harper is trying to control who attends and what is discussed.
“We have to chart the agenda,” Mr. Madahbee said. “And if there is any honour in the Crown, the Governor-General better get his ass there.”
Asked if the meeting should be cancelled, Mr. Madahbee would say only “that is part of the commentary and that is being discussed, but there is no decision one way or the other yet.”
Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the Prime Minister appears to want to contain the meeting and “we don’t appreciate being dictated to in terms of how we are going to sit down with him.”
In the time allotted, the chiefs will be able to do little more than tell the Prime Minister he must recognize the need to develop processes to transform the relationship between Canada and the first nations, Mr. Nepinak said. If Mr. Harper is not there for the full meeting, “I don’t think we can accomplish that.”
The Manitoba chief warned that there would be consequences for Canada if the meeting fails. What is at stake is the Prime Minister’s energy development plan, Mr. Nepinak said.
“There is enough momentum,” he said, “there is enough diversity in the groups and the grassroots movement, there is enough geography covered to put a stop to resources development in Canada until we get what we need to break the chains of poverty.”