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john ibbitson

The third phase of Stephen Harper's approach to aboriginal issues collides with the angry, conflicting, politically charged demands of Canada's first nations leadership Tuesday. Not only is there no certainty of success, no one is exactly sure what success would look like.

The meeting itself is an important station in the progress of this Prime Minister. Mr. Harper came to power in 2006 determined to scupper the Kelowna Accord, Paul Martin's multibillion-dollar agreement to improve health, education and quality of life for Indian and other aboriginal people.

In this phase, Mr. Harper saw Kelowna as another Kyoto: vastly expensive and impossible to implement. That wasn't fair to Mr. Martin, who had succeeded for the first time in persuading native leaders to focus more on fighting social challenges within their community and less on demands for greater autonomy.

Regardless, Kelowna evaporated, to be replaced by Phase Two: a succession of ad hoc policies put forward by a succession of Indian Affairs ministers, with little clear direction and no great urgency. Meanwhile, the problem and potential remained: hundreds of thousands of young native children living on reserve, many in dire conditions, receiving little in the way of education and with little hope of finding a job, even as the natural-resource sector surrounding some of the reserves flourished and Canada imported workers to deal with growing job shortages.

Over the past year or so, Mr. Harper has begun to take an active, personal interest in aboriginal issues. Under his direction, the government hopes to improve the patchwork of mostly inadequate or non-existent on-reserve schools; it would like to see on-reserve workers share in the resource boom, and it encourages market-based economic development on reserves. To show he's serious, a Prime Minister who abhors meeting with the premiers agreed to meet Tuesday with the chiefs. Phase Three.

The chiefs aren't sure what to make of it. In conversations Monday, they listed endless and conflicting demands: native control over natural resources, new funding for schools, yes, but also for housing, water, roads. Guaranteed native representation in Parliament. Greater independence.

In fact it's not possible to describe what the chiefs want. Those who operate under established treaties differ from those who don't. Reserves near southern cities face different issues than reserves in the remote north. Older chiefs often have different priorities than younger chiefs, who generally are less suspicious of new education proposals than those who were subjected to residential schools.

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And all of this plays out against a backdrop of increasing resentment toward Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who has co-operated with the Harper government in establishing educational priorities, who lobbied hard for this summit, and who opponents claim is too much in the Prime Minister's back pocket.

Mr. Atleo will be challenged for the AFN leadership this July. How Tuesday goes could determine whether he prevails.

The veil of secrecy (standard operating procedure for this government), confusion over the agenda and the dawning realization that Mr. Harper would be leaving later Tuesday for Davos, rather than hanging in for the whole day, threatened to derail the conference, until organizers hastily scheduled a Monday afternoon session with the PM and representative chiefs.

When Tuesday ends, Mr. Harper will be satisfied if the Crown and the chiefs agree to jointly pursue measures to improve the quality of education and economic development on reserves, however vague that might sound. This may be enough for some chiefs, but won't be nearly enough for others. Whether a single native child on reserve gets a better education, or a single native worker a better job at the end of it, remains an open question.