Stephen Harper is pushing ahead with an agenda focused on practical steps to boost the economies of Canada's reserves, pointing to a promising new generation of native leaders and entrepreneurs as examples of a brighter future.
More than 400 native chiefs from across the country arrived in Ottawa with wide-ranging demands for the one-day Crown-First Nations Gathering, but the Prime Minister quickly made clear that his priority was the economy.
His message: Canada's resource sector is expanding, skilled labour is in short supply and the government is ready to make incremental changes to land and education policy that will boost first nations employment.
"This is a new day," he said. "New generations are arising, generations that seek a common vision, that have common goals."
A growing number of first nations communities are striking their own direct land-management deals with Ottawa that make it easier to create businesses on reserve and attract non-native investment. Industrial parks, golf courses, hotels and residential subdivisions are becoming more common on reserves, bringing in new revenues for band governments – a trend Ottawa is determined to encourage.
But Mr. Harper was quickly reminded by many chiefs – including the influential old guard of first nations leaders – that this approach ignores the fundamental legal questions around land rights that still hang over large parts of Canada.
Further, some chiefs bristled at the idea of sending their young men and women away to work in resource projects far from home.
"There was discussion about training my people to have jobs to work for somebody else," said Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario. Mr. Beardy's region includes Attawapiskat, where a state of emergency was declared in the fall over deplorable housing conditions. "We want to develop [the land]so somebody would work for us and make money for us," he said.
With the Prime Minister seated in the front row, two former national chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations – Ovid Mercredi and Matthew Coon Come – each passionately argued why Canada must sign nation-to-nation agreements that share natural resources revenue.
Mr. Coon Come, now grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, noted the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec resource deal shows how forestry, energy and mine development on traditional territories – which are outlined in treaties and are much larger than reserves – can produce steady revenue for first nations governments.
"This arrangement provides the Cree with stable, predictable revenues over the long term," he said.
Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations released a statement at the end of the day hinting at further action on reserve funding and accountability, education, economic development and treaties, but the 2 1/2-page statement contained little detail.
When asked after the summit to explain how the government felt about revenue-sharing, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the focus is instead on education, skills training and assuring that first nations are job-ready.
But National Chief Shawn Atleo – who called the day an important first step – said the government has committed to implement treaties and that includes "the notion of resource revenue sharing." He said a new economic task force will also have to look at the issue.
Mr. Harper was originally expected to depart at noon, a schedule that angered many of the chiefs who came to Ottawa expecting to have the opportunity to air their grievances face-to-face. In the end, he stayed the full day.
Watching all of this unfold on television many hours away was Chief Clarence Louie, of the Osoyoos Indian Band, whose business success in land development is often cited as the way of the future by the Conservative government.
He noted that many of the speeches in Ottawa weren't much different from those given by prime ministers and native leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. But he said that doesn't mean that unresolved legal questions over land rights can be ignored at the expense of practical changes.
"You have to do both," he said. However, tackling unemployment, in his view, is the most direct way at improving social issues like incarceration rates and health problems.
"It's the idleness of unemployment which causes most of our social aches and pains," he said. "The problem I had in many of the speeches that were given is they're not talking about the unemployment rate of our people and how that should be a national shame."
As the day wrapped up, the government's approach to treaties was a common concern among chiefs.
Dean Sayers, the chief of the Batchewana First Nation which covers 240 kilometres of shoreline along the top of Lake Superior, said his people will enforce their original treaty and will claim the right to resource revenues on their land.
"Show us the receipts, show us where you got it, you make a claim to us," Mr. Sayers said. "If anybody's caught stealing from us anymore without our consent, taking those minerals, we will shut you down. We are going to empower ourselves."
Some first nations leaders who attended a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper say little of substance was accomplished.
And a statement released at the end of the day-long event by Mr. Harper and Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, does not go much further than a joint action plan they composed last summer, much of which focuses on aspirations for the future rather than solid commitments.
But the government has now agreed to:
- Provide multi-year funding rather than year-by-year funding to first nations governments that are deemed to be functioning at a high level;
- Work toward self-sufficiency of first nations;
- Establish a working group that will include representatives of first nations, the Finance department and the Aboriginal Affairs department to review the structure of financial arrangements between Ottawa and the first nations;
- Remove barriers to first nations self-governance;
- Respect treaty relationships and find common ground on treaty implementation;
- Launch an economic task force with the first nations within three months that will look at ways to unlock the potential of native communities.
- Maintain an ongoing dialogue about established goals and report on progress no later than Jan. 24, 2013.
Gloria Galloway, Ottawa