The follow-up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo’s contentious Jan. 11 summit remains elusive – despite Ottawa’s vow more than two months ago that the pair would meet again “in the coming weeks.”
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) says a second meeting with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leader will be announced in “due course.”
“The [second] meeting will take place when both sides feel that they’re ready,” said Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, who was AFN chief from 2000 to 2003. “You don’t want to have a meeting just to have a bitching session or bark at each other.”
The assembly invited the PMO to its two-day treaty forum in Saskatchewan last week, but no one from the office attended.
Time was allotted on March 27 for someone from the PMO to address hundreds of delegates on what Ottawa might do to ensure historic treaties are honoured.
“You can interpret [the absence] as a lack of commitment, you can interpret it as no time, you can interpret it as it being too big of a forum,” said AFN regional chief Perry Bellegarde, adding that Aboriginal Affairs representatives did attend.
“[A PMO or cabinet-level presence] would have shown political will and that their commitment from Jan. 11 would be honoured. But we didn’t see that.”
Several prominent chiefs were outraged that Mr. Atleo agreed to meet on Jan. 11 with the Prime Minister on treaty issues even though Mr. Harper did not honour their demand that the Governor-General attend.
Since the summit, which also focused on education and resource development, recently appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has met and spoken with Mr. Bellegarde several times.
Mr. Valcourt also will meet face-to-face on Friday with Manitoba grand elder Raymond Robinson, who on Wednesday began a hunger strike to protest against new strings attached to the funds the federal government sends to First Nations. Mr. Robinson made headlines earlier this year when he joined Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in a liquid-diet protest.
The minister’s office told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Valcourt will meet with Mr. Robinson in Ottawa on Friday afternoon. Mr. Robinson has promised to maintain his second fast until the Prime Minister agrees to high-level discussions with First Nations leaders.
He said in a statement he is “ready to die for his cause” – that he won’t eat until the Prime Minister agrees to “meaningful nation-to-nation dialogue with First Nations” and axes changes to a new federal funding agreement that chiefs say threaten their treaty rights.
The past four months have seen the rise of the Idle No More protest movement and growing calls among First Nations leaders for a tougher stand on treaty rights.
Two new senior oversight committees comprised of assembly and government representatives have been struck to address some of the issues. One is hammering out a way forward on comprehensive land claims while the other is focused on the treaty relationship.
Mr. Bellegarde, the AFN’s point-person on treaties, said he hopes the federal government will soon create a senior cabinet committee on relations among Canada, the Crown, and first nations.
Several chiefs are working to create a national treaty alliance, which some aboriginal leaders fear would threaten the assembly while it is working to calm divisions.
When asked whether the Prime Minister would meet with the new alliance, the PMO said it would not comment on a “hypothetical scenario.”