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aboriginal rights

Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government's preference for small but steady progress on aboriginal issues has run up against a determined push by first nations for a more sweeping and ambitious recognition of Canada's treaties.

The contrast in approaches was made clear early in the day Friday, as the federal government announced eight more first nation communities signed on to a framework on land management for reserves, a policy that allows band councils to opt out of 34 land-related sections of the Indian Act.

The framework, first approved by Parliament in 1999 under a Liberal government, allows participating first nations to develop their own land codes with the aim of making it easier to encourage economic development on reserves.

The announcement means there will soon be 69 first nations operating or developing their own land codes under the First Nation Land Management regime.

It is a clear example of Ottawa's preference for incremental changes to the Indian Act based on voluntary, "opt-in" provisions that avoid the need for getting all of the more than 600 first nations in Canada on board.

But it quickly became obvious as the day went on that the Assembly of First Nations has lost all appetite for small steps.

"Legislation that tinkers around the edges of the Indian Act must stop," states one of eight demands the AFN presented to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday.

That will pose a challenge for Ottawa. Both Conservative and Liberal governments have moved in recent years toward voluntary changes to the Indian Act. The 1876 legislation that governs Canada's reserves is widely viewed as racist and paternalistic, but there is no consensus on what should take its place.

But the government's more recent moves to introduce measures via budget bills that affect first nations have fuelled recent protests. As a result, there is now a much stronger push from the first nations grassroots and leaders for an emphasis on treaty rights.

Landmark decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 and 2005 established that Ottawa has a legal obligation to consult, and where appropriate, accommodate first nations on measures that might affect treaty rights. But first nations say the government's budget bills and efforts to encourage the construction of a pipeline to the Pacific coast are the latest example of Ottawa ignoring its legal duty to consult.

"This government's incredibly pig-headed and willfully blind about these issues," said University of Saskatchewan professor Jim Miller, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations.

"You really have to talk to [first nations]."

Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan insists the government's bills are constitutional. He also said the government agreed to a high-level discussion on treaties and land claims and that another meeting with the AFN will take place in the coming weeks.

"I think we achieved quite a bit," he said after the meeting.