It is a gathering aimed at improving the lives of some of Canada’s most disadvantaged people, but Stephen Harper’s initial face-to-face with first-nations leaders is expected to be more about building relationships than taking concrete action.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who has been working for more than a year to arrange the meeting that will take place in Ottawa on Tuesday, says he will consider the event a success if both sides walk away feeling an increased sense of trust.
“What first nations have been seeking is a commitment on the part of the Crown to really renew the historic relationship as real partners, and that goes back to the treaty relationship,” Mr. Atleo said in an interview on Friday.
The many issues facing Canada’s first nations – from complex matters of treaty rights to the basic needs for water, housing and education – cannot possibly be tackled in any substantial way during the brief hours between the opening ceremony and the closing prayer.
The Conservative government, which is promising the participation of at least 10 cabinet ministers and other high-ranking officials, sees the meeting as a chance to expand upon a joint action plan it has crafted with the AFN. Its spokesmen say the intent is to identify practical ways to improve the quality of life and long-term economic prosperity of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
But there is less optimism for real results on the first-nations side. There is broad skepticism about the government’s intentions.
A spokesman for Mr. Harper refused to say Friday whether the Prime Minister himself would stay from start to finish. And Vice-Chief Morley Watson of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, one of the hundreds of chiefs who are expected to converge in the national capital, has complained that the agenda does not guarantee the opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister directly.
Other chiefs say little can be accomplished without the premiers and territorial leaders – who could negotiate the sharing of revenues from natural resources – at the table.
For his part, Mr. Alteo said he is simply looking for an expressed willingness on the part of the Crown to do the work that is needed on all fronts. And he is hoping, he said, that the Prime Minister will agree to get together again in a year’s time to “touch base, to reflect, to renew and to strengthen plans on a go-forth basis.”
The joint action plan is full of vague intentions to work together to address common interests. But it does include a commitment to make recommendations stemming from a panel on first-nations education which will release its report in the second week of February.
Roberta Jamieson, the president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, said next week’s meeting is the time for real action on first-nations education. Ms. Jamieson said she is tired of seeing statements of principle and memoranda of understanding. “I will be looking for specifics such as a commitment to address the disparity in funding for education for first nations,” she said during a visit to Ottawa this week.
That means providing more money for reserve schools, which fall further behind provincially funded schools every year, she said. And, she said, it means ensuring that every first-nations student who gets into college and university will be supported in their education.
Education is also a top priority for Mr. Atleo. But, he said, it is just one of the topics that must be addressed at the meeting.
Tuesday will not be a day for negotiating budgets, he said. It will be a day “to move away from the unilateralism that has characterized the centuries of the relationship, everything from the Indian Act to residential schools, and that we would break that pattern.”
The tough issues on the table at next week’s meeting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, cabinet ministers, and chiefs of first nations from across Canada will be discussed at three concurrent sessions. They are:
Strengthening the relationship and enabling opportunities: This involves such things as treaty rights, governance, jurisdiction and titles. Many first nations want to break free of the Indian Act and exercise more control over their affairs. The slow pace of treaty negotiations has also been a long-standing irritant.
Unlocking the potential of first nation economies: This includes economic development, partnerships and land issues. Some chiefs say the Constitution does not adequately define their rights, including the right to a share of the resources on their traditional lands. The federal government, on the other hand, wants more accountability and transparency from first nations.
Realizing the promise of first nations peoples: A national panel struck a year ago by the Assembly of First Nations and the government has been looking at the issue of education on reserves. It will report later this month. But some first nations leaders say they don’t need a report to tell them how much a disparity in education funding is hurting their children.