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native affairs

Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, poses for a photo in Brantford, on January 19, 2012.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to sit down next week with first nations leaders from across Canada, the chief who speaks for Manitoba says the problems facing his people cannot be solved in a one-day meeting conducted in the absence of the premiers.

Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he will be asking Mr. Harper to schedule a conference of first ministers and first nations at which the loosely defined rights of indigenous people that are guaranteed in the Constitution are explicitly spelled out – especially the resource rights.

As it stands, the participants at the five-hour meeting next Tuesday will discuss what Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), has called the need to "reset the relationship" with Ottawa. They will also talk about economic development in first nations communities and the more basic issues of water and housing that were highlighted this fall by the crisis in the remote Ontario community of Attawapiskat.

Many first nations leaders say the key to resolving all of these matters is an equitable sharing of resource rights, not just on reserves, but across all of their traditional lands. And, for the most part, the provinces and territories have control over those resources, whether it is diamonds in Ontario, oil in Alberta or minerals in Manitoba.

So "you need to have the appropriate decision makers at the table," Mr. Nepinak said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "And without a first ministers meeting with the Prime Minister as well as provincial and territorial leaders, you're not going to be able to make the decisions that need to be made."

Mr. Atleo has not yet been available to speak to reporters before next week's meeting. But Mr. Nepinak said he does not believe the action plan of the AFN goes far enough.

"Although it talks a big game, it doesn't look like it could actually achieve the type of renewal or the type of resetting of the relationship that we are envisioning," he said.

The Manitoba call for a first ministers' meeting, on the other hand, is being endorsed by many chiefs across Canada, he said. "I can say there is broad support and it's growing support."

Mr. Harper has made his aversion to such gatherings quite clear.

And Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Mr. Harper and a professor at the University of Calgary who has spent much time studying the property rights of aboriginal people, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that a first ministers' meeting is "definitely out."

Mr. Flanagan said constitutional gatherings between first ministers and the first nations that were held during the 1980s produced nothing.

"To judge from the Prime Minister's past behaviour, what will probably come after this meeting will be a list of governmental action items, perhaps partially endorsed by some elements of the AFN," Mr. Flanagan wrote. "It will include, I am sure, something on native education and, I hope, something on better property rights for first nations. Beyond that, I'm not so sure."

Mr. Nepinak said the fact that the meetings of the 1980s did not define the extent of the rights granted to first nations is all the more reason for new meetings to be held. "That's why we have coined this process 'unfinished business.' "

If Mr. Harper says no, the first nations will keep asking for a first ministers' meeting until some future prime minister agrees, Mr. Nepinak said.

"We have to be really goal-oriented here," he said, "because there's too many tragedies happening in our communities and our people need optimism, they need something positive to look forward to and this one-day meeting, so far, is not hitting the mark, so we've got to build from it somehow."