Skip to main content

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, holds a press conference following the Crown First Nations Gathering in Ottawa on Wednesday, January 25, 2012.

The head of the Assembly of First Nations says he wants to see the results of historic talks with the federal government reflected in the next budget.

National Chief Shawn Atleo says areas such as education need urgent attention, and not just in order to benefit first-nations communities.

He says the economic future of Canada depends on it and that's something Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government believe as well.

First nations and the Conservative government emerged from talks on Tuesday with a commitment to renew their relationship by addressing a number of long-standing concerns.

They agreed to set up working groups to look at the financial relationship between Ottawa and native communities as well as economic development.

They also committed to following up on an already-launched working group examining education.

"My view is that we can be both practical in areas like education, build on what we know to be the challenge, get to the work together with the Crown, agree to how we're going to implement those changes and then seek the resources to match the required changes," Mr. Atleo told reporters.

"Those are natural next steps to be looking for. Our children, as I said yesterday, cannot wait."

Mr. Atleo acknowledged that there have been years of studies and task forces on the issues facing First Nations communities.

But he said this time is different. He said the point of Tuesday's talks was to get both sides working together.

"This is about moving away from government unilaterally deciding what they feel is right for First Nations," he said. "That's not a partnership."

Chiefs responded positively to the renewed relationship in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's meetings, but the morning after brought renewed concerns.

"We have epidemic health and social issues, gross inequities in funding for our students, and virtually no share in the billions in resources being stolen from our traditional territories," said Chief Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinabek Nation.

"What we heard from Harper was a lame re-hashing of his government's so-called accomplishments for our communities and citizens."

Mr. Atleo said it is time for an end to the old notion that first nations are merely considered "stakeholders" in discussions around natural resource development.

But he stopped short of saying that first nations ought to have a veto over those projects, including the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Enbridge wants to build a 1,170-kilometre twin pipeline that would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat in northwest B.C., where huge tanker ships would transport it to Asia.

The Alberta and federal governments have said the pipeline is crucial to building new markets for the country's resources, especially in Asia.

But many aboriginal groups who live along the pipeline's proposed route are concerned about potential adverse environmental impacts.

Mr. Atleo said first nations need to be full partners in designing how Canada builds its economies.

"True partners would design a way forward together and would form a shared vision of how resource development would occur in this country," he said.

Interact with The Globe