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native protests

Public support for the Harper government in the weeks ahead will hinge on how well it handles the native protests that threaten to escalate this week.

Thus far, the Conservatives have gotten the big things right, by ignoring peaceful demonstrations and engaging with the responsible leadership in order to marginalize extremists. That is about what Canadians expect from their government at times like this.

The militant tendency within the native movement is vowing a day of action Wednesday that could block roads, bridges and rail lines in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and elsewhere. There are other protests planned for Jan. 28, when Parliament resumes.

The opposition parties have already staked their ground: The native protests, they maintain, are rooted in centuries of injustice compounded by Conservative intransigence.

"It is not a comedy of errors but it's a tragedy of errors that we find ourselves in this situation today," Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae maintained. Both the NDP and Liberals insist Mr. Harper must deal swiftly and substantively with native claims.

But public expectations are low. Last summer, Nanos Research and the Institute for Research on Public Policy produced a study that rated major issues by two criteria: how important a policy challenge was to the public, and how confident the public was that government could meet the challenge.

First nations issues ranked at the very bottom in both public importance and in public confidence that government could make things better.

While the Idle No More Movement and Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike may have increased the importance of native issues for most Canadians, it is unlikely they are any more confident that anything can be done. Mr. Nanos described that attitude as a sense of "public-policy futility."

Of course the Harper government is, like all governments, most interested in keeping its own supporters onside. The Conservative coalition consists, in part, of rural voters in Ontario and voters in the West apart from downtown Vancouver. These voters tend to be impatient with native demands for greater control over land and resources.

The other part of the coalition consists of suburban immigrant voters in Ontario. Most of them come from places such as India, the Philippines and China, which also suffered colonial oppression. They are themselves the children of the dispossessed.

While they may empathize with native Canadians, most immigrant Canadians are willing, even eager, to integrate into Canadian society. It would hardly be surprising in that case if they had only limited empathy for native claims to land and sovereignty, and little sense of collective responsibility for the poverty on many reserves.

Remember: There are roughly 370,000 first nations living on reserves. About 250,000 immigrants, almost all from non-European societies, arrive in Canada every year. Time is not on the natives' side.

Mr. Harper also knows that he faces a divided opposition. Native leaders who are unhappy with National Chief Shawn Atleo's willingness to negotiate with the Harper government are challenging his leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

Again, politically, this works to the Prime Minister's advantage. If Mr. Harper can demonstrate that he takes native demands seriously and that he can and will work with Mr. Atleo and the AFN, then there will be little public sympathy for the militants.

The wild card is anarchy. If the chiefs opposing Mr. Atleo and the Idle No More activists escalate their demonstrations to the point where there is risk of violence or serious economic disruption, then the federal government will have to be firm in enforcing the rule of law.

But that is exactly the moment at which events can spiral out of control: Oka; the Dudley George shooting. Then no one can predict what will happen.

Short of that, if the Harper government stays the current course, then the Conservative coalition of support should hold and the government should emerge from this winter of native discontent in reasonable shape – politically, at least.