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First Nations chiefs listen to speeches during the Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa on Jan. 24.The Canadian Press

The Prime Minister and the chiefs of Canada's first nations left on Tuesday from their first meeting in six years with symbolic gifts and expressions of goodwill. The only stated objective of the gathering had been to 'reset the relationship,' which has deteriorated over centuries of misunderstandings and broken promises. As Gloria Galloway reports, the stakes are high for everyone involved

Stakes for Shawn Atleo

Shawn Atleo, the soft-spoken and cerebral man who has led the Assembly of First Nations for three years, has only just begun his efforts to improve the quality of education on reserves, where a mere 40 per cent of students nationally are graduating from high school.

If he intends to run again and keep his job for another three years, he must survive a vote of 663 chiefs at a convention in July. Mr. Atleo's chances of winning that election are probably no better now than they were going into the Tuesday meeting. There are factions within the AFN who would like to see him replaced.

But a complete failure at the meeting could have caused serious damage to any re-election bid. And, with preliminary expectations set low, Mr. Atleo cannot be said to have failed.

The chiefs arriving from across Canada were infuriated to learn that Prime Minister Stephen Harper planned to be in the summit room for just a small portion of the full-day event.

Sensing catastrophe, Mr. Atleo persuaded Mr. Harper to meet 30 chiefs at a hastily organized roundtable late Monday afternoon and then urged him to stay at the following day's gathering for as long as possible, as a demonstration of his commitment to the first nations.

The Prime Minister, a man not given to changes of plan, altered his schedule and remained at the Tuesday meeting until the closing prayer.

Some chiefs will interpret that as further proof that Mr. Atleo is too close to Mr. Harper.

But there had been threats of a first-nations walkout if the Prime Minister departed too soon. Mr. Atleo's powers of persuasion prevented the conference from collapse – something that could have irreparably damaged the relationship with the government that he says needs to be reset.

Stakes for Stephen Harper

The Prime Minister has made clear his intention to secure Canada's place as a global resource leader. That ambition will be more easily realized with the co-operation of the people whose lands hold the resources.

The Northern Gateway pipeline that would take bitumen from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean must cross traditional native territory. While some of the first nations on the route have agreed to the development, others are staunchly opposed. They could delay the approval process and create additional antipathy for the controversial proposal.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Harper can convince the international community that development is proceeding with the sanction of Canada's aboriginal people, it will be more difficult for opponents to gain purchase.

In his six years in power, Mr. Harper has taken two key steps toward improving relations with the first nations. The first was the government's apology for the abuse of children at residential schools. The second was Canada's signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The chiefs complain that Mr. Harper's style on some other matters has been unilateral and paternalistic. His decision to stay at the conference listening to aboriginal issues, and to hold another gathering on Monday, may have helped dissipate those negative feelings.

There was, however, a mixed reaction to Mr. Harper's declaration that blowing up the much despised Indian Act all at once would leave too great a hole. While some chiefs agree with him, others want that legislation gone.

The Prime Minister spoke at the summit about the need to train young aboriginal people for jobs in the expanding resource economy. But even that was greeted with suspicion. Stan Beardy, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario, quipped that, while the government seems intent on preparing his young people to work for somebody else, "we want to develop [the land]so somebody would work for us and make money for us."

Stakes for first-nations people

First-nations independence from the federal government and the Indian Act can only come with economic prosperity.

A common thread in the messages delivered by chiefs as they left the Crown-first-nations gathering on Tuesday was their insistence that their people share in the wealth from the resources of their land.

They are not talking about the tiny reserves, but rather the whole of their ancestral territory as spelled out in treaties, some of which date back more than 200 years.

"We did agree in those treaties to share this vast country with the settler government at the time, and unfortunately that hasn't happened yet," said Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. "Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, we ended up being wards of the federal government."

Out of the conference, the government has agreed to launch an economic task force to "further unlock the potential of the first nations."

The topic of education was also raised. Any real progress in that regard is on hold while Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo wait for a report from a panel they commissioned a year ago to examine why children taught on reserve are faring so poorly compared with other Canadian kids.

But many first-nations leaders say the reason for the disparity between their schools and the schools funded by the province is obvious: The federal money for provincial schools has been increasing at 6 per cent a year while the annual increases to pay for reserve education have been capped at 2 per cent.

A number of the chiefs attending the conference said they hoped, at the very least, the cap would be lifted. They walked away disappointed.

Stakes for Canada

Some studies suggest that the price of doing nothing to help Canada's first nations gain economic independence will be tens of billions of dollars in social assistance, justice costs and lost tax revenue. But there is also the threat of civil unrest.

Ms. Stonefish said her people are ready to enforce their treaty rights and demand a share of their resource revenues, with or without the Crown. "They are tired of waiting," she said.

Mr. Beardy and many other chiefs warned they could not stop their people if they decided to take a much more aggressive stance. "This generation of leaders is still very reasonable. We tried to deal with the government in a meaningful manner," he said. "If that fails, our young people are so desperate – there is a high rate of suicide in my territory, prescription drug abuse, high unemployment – they have nothing to lose if they start taking direct action."

That could mean blockades or even acts of vandalism and violence. If there is aboriginal unrest in Canada, Mr. Beardy said, "there's going to be a lot of uncertainty for investors abroad."

Nobody wants uprisings like the one in Caledonia, Ont., where a 2006 land claim dispute resulted in months of barricades, protests, punches and insults, or in Oka, Que., where another land dispute in 1990 resulted in blockades, gunfire and the death of a police officer.

"This reminds me of early days when Oka was happening," said Bill Erasmus, the respected Regional Chief for the Northwest Territories. "What are you going to do if your young people take up arms and so on? We can't control that. We're not in charge of that at home. We can advise our people. But, in the end, a lot of this is spontaneous."

Gloria Galloway is a member of The Globe and Mail's parliamentary bureau.