Alberta is hoping to smooth troubled relations with its northern First Nations by opening talks on everything from health and education to environmental issues and missing aboriginal women.
Premier Jim Prentice, who also serves as aboriginal affairs minister, had a "comprehensive" meeting with Treaty 8 chiefs on Thursday.
"It was a good meeting," he said. "The chiefs didn't hold anything back from me in terms of what their feelings are and some of the frustrations that they feel."
The parties are formalizing an agreement for negotiations on six issues that the chiefs raised, Mr. Prentice said. Talks are to cover education, health, environment and land use, child welfare, missing aboriginal women and consultation on resource development.
Cabinet ministers from appropriate departments are to take part in each set of talks, said Mr. Prentice. All the topics have been the subject of disputes and several court cases and judicial reviews have resulted.
Bands have told the government they don't want any part of its proposed plan to centralize and control how companies work with First Nations on development projects.
"I've heard from a couple of very passionate chiefs about their concerns about the way the consultation process is working – or isn't working," Mr. Prentice said.
Treaty 8 officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Premier said he hopes to set up similar talks with bands covered by Treaties 6 and 7 in central and southern Alberta.
"I'll certainly have a meeting with each of the other treaty groups and see what their concerns are."
The government has also scheduled a meeting for March 13 with all the province's treaty chiefs to discuss aboriginal education.
Prentice has made resolving aboriginal concerns – which have become an international issue as Alberta tries to sell its energy resources abroad – a priority of his government. As well as serving as his own minister on the file, he has held repeated meetings with First Nations chiefs and has promised reform in several areas, including on resource consultation. He said the meetings with Treaty 8 band are the beginning of that process.
"It is the beginning of a relationship," Mr. Prentice said. "Treaty 8 is the majority of the land mass of Alberta and the entirety of northern Alberta.
"These are important relationships."