The head of Canada’s largest aboriginal group says a long-awaited meeting between native leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper could take place within months and will be used to press for more autonomy and fairer funding for first nations.
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that his group has been speaking with the Prime Minister’s Office “and there are signals of a willingness to work on a date for this winter, December or January.”
The relationship between first nations and the Crown needs to be reset, Mr. Atleo said. “I certainly would have liked to have seen this first nations-Crown gathering happen earlier,” he said.
Mr. Harper told Mr. Atleo in a letter last December that he was “open to participating” in such a meeting and stressed at that time his commitment to educational reform.
But first nations leaders are not waiting quietly. Many will be in Ottawa on Thursday to talk with politicians, and Mr. Atleo himself attended Liberal and New Democrat caucus meetings on Wednesday.
The intent of this type of lobbying, the national chief said, is to urge the government to address major infrastructure challenges and basic health-and-safety issues in first nations communities. It is also to advocate for sustainable, long-term funding for education.
Federal transfers to the provinces and territories for health and education have been increasing at a rate of 6 per cent a year, but money sent to first nations for similar purposes has been capped at 2 per cent since 1996. As a result, high-school graduation rates for first-nations students are hovering at only about 50 per cent.
“This is really a challenge for all Canadians to see this disparity, Mr. Atleo said.
The AFN will ask the government for $2-billion to cover the shortfall in education, a request that comes at a time when all departments are being asked to trim their budgets to help reduce the multibillion-dollar deficit.
“Well, the money hasn’t been there in good times and the money hasn’t otherwise been there when times were tough,” Mr. Atleo said. “We’ve got to take a decision about whether or not this becomes an investment in the economic and the human potential future of this country.”
Last year, Mr. Atleo and the federal government announced the creation of a panel to find better ways of improving the outcomes for children in primary and secondary schools on reserves.
Many first nations in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec pulled out of the process, saying they will run their own parallel investigations and citing suspicions that the federal government is trying to override treaty rights and impose an education system on them.
But Mr. Atleo said the panel was never intended to be the only means of underscoring the fact that education is a priority. “First nations in all regions across the country have been engaging quite actively,” he said, adding that parallel reports will be more than welcome.
“This panel is very much independent and their report will go back to both government and to first nations,” Mr. Atleo said. “And it will only be then, based on the first nations’ decision and direction, that the real work will have to occur.”