Provided the talks don’t collapse before they even begin, two streams will converge Friday: the one a set of hard-headed negotiations between native leaders and the Harper government; the other a torrent of frustration and fantasy.
The chiefs, headed by Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, will be looking for concrete commitments from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on implementing treaties, speeding up the land-claims process and launching an inquiry into murdered and missing native women.
Mr. Harper will be looking to improve education and economic development on reserve. Both sides may explore ways in which natives can participate more fully in the resource boom that has the potential to bring new prosperity to isolated reserves.
Any announcements will be tentative, and progress incremental. Mr. Harper will only be there in person for a small part of the day.
But Theresa Spence, the Attawapiskat chief who is on a hunger strike, won’t be there at all, because Governor-General David Johnston made it clear he can have no role in such an event. Chief Spence and some other native leaders believe the meeting should be cancelled if Mr. Johnston doesn’t show up.
The Idle No More movement that Chief Spence has come to personify embraces the mythical concept of true native sovereignty. According to this view, the King and the ancestral leaders of the first nations negotiated the conditions by which British settlers might be allowed to come onto native lands.
Those conditions, embodied in treaties and oral understandings, have not been honoured, and much land has been taken without consent.
By this reasoning, since the original agreements were with the Crown, only the Crown can make things right. “We have sent a letter to Buckingham Palace and request[ed] that Queen Elizabeth II send forth her representative which is the Governor-General of Canada,” Ms. Spence declared in press release Wednesday.
“I will not be attending Friday’s meeting with the Prime Minister, as the Governor-General’s attendance is integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights.”
This is just wrong. To believe that the Queen or the Governor-General can play any role – other than through ceremony and empathy – in reconciling first nations and the Government of Canada is just wrong.
The government is billing Friday’s gathering as a working meeting. Neither the Queen nor her representative can be part of any working meeting; they can have nothing whatsoever to do with developing policy or entering into commitments. Otherwise, this constitutional monarchy would simply become a monarchy, and we can’t have that.
Instead of attending the meeting, Ms. Spence will be part of what is now being called a Global Day of Action. While the PM and the chiefs hunker down, supporters of Idle No More will hold scores of rallies, marches, round dances and the like across Canada, with dozens of international gestures of solidarity planned in the United States and in other countries from Australia to Portugal.
These protests capture the deep frustration of native Canadians, many of them young, at the lack of progress in ending poverty while increasing dignity and autonomy on reserve. They capture as well the discontent of the former Occupy movement toward capitalism in general and the Harper government in particular.
Will the new movement fade over time, as Occupy faded? When will Chief Spence’s fast end, and how will it end? Will any of this mean anything, six months from now?
We can only wait and watch, as the politicians and the chiefs haggle, Idle No More takes once again to the streets, and native romantics dream of a king who will never come.