The Crown-first-nations summit was, in the words of Chief Roger Augustine, “a 100-per-cent success.” But if first steps are to become a journey, three guideposts must point the way.
There must be money. There must be education reform. And the decision of first nations to collaborate with rather than confront the federal government must be affirmed.
The word from those who attended both public and private sessions on Tuesday ranged from cautious optimism to jubilation after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled plans so he could spend a full day with chiefs from the Assembly of First Nations, part of what Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue promised would be “a reset” in relations between chiefs and Crown.
The meeting ended with praise from each side for the other, along with a communiqué that promised to break new ground in economic development, first nations governance and resolving land claims.
The ultimate shared goal is action to displace the 136-year-old Indian Act’s antiquated clauses chunk by chunk until it withers from irrelevance. This was the mutual good will that Tuesday’s summit achieved.
But good will has been squandered in the past, and could be again. Many chiefs warned of rising, seething impatience among younger members on reserves.
“I don’t know how much patience is left for our people,” declared Chief Dean Sayers of Batchewana First Nation in northern Ontario. “I don’t think there’s much patience left.”
So what must happen, before patience runs out and barricades go up?
First must come swift action to improve education on reserves, where an estimated 60 per cent of students fail to complete high school. A joint panel sponsored by the Conservative government and the AFN, which will report in February, is expected to recommend new region-wide or province-wide native school boards to pool resources, manage schools, supervise teachers and create native-centric curriculums that also meet provincial standards.
If the Harper government is serious about education reform, it will implement the panel’s recommendations through a First Nations Education Act written in collaboration with the chiefs and buttressed with increased funding for schools that have been starved of dollars for decades.
Money will also be the key when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brings down his budget in March. All departments face cuts, and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs will be no exception.
But if that budget doesn’t commit to improving health, housing and education on reserves, then the chiefs will turn against this government, replacing good will with anger.
Which attitude prevails will be evident in July, when Shawn Atleo is either returned or defeated as National Chief of the AFN. The success of Tuesday’s meeting appeared to vindicate Mr. Atleo’s strategy of working with the Harper government rather than fighting against it.
His re-election would signal that the national chiefs back his consensus-building approach. His defeat would signal that the chiefs have given up on co-operation.
These three signposts only get things started. In his remarks, Mr. Harper acknowledged that prosperity for many reserves will depend on their ability to profit through jobs and revenue from the natural resources that surround them.
Ultimately, real progress will require the rarest of all commodities between government and first-nations leaders: trust. It is hard to imagine such a day.
But at least Tuesday’s meeting marked a step down a path both sides claim they want to follow.
“That was fun,” Quebec regional Chief Ghislain Picard quipped in wrapping up the day. “Let’s do it again.”
And they might, if Stephen Harper really does walk his talk.