Skip to main content

Boosting economic activity on aboriginal land will be the dominant focus of Tuesday's gathering with native chiefs, as Stephen Harper aims to bring first nations on board with his efforts toward increased natural-resources development.

The Prime Minister's vocal support of a pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific Ocean is just one high-profile example of the economic stakes riding on smooth relations with first nations.

With the government planning a budget with a focus on cuts – as well as long-term job creation and changing demographics – the Tuesday summit in Ottawa, according to government officials, will include a discussion of how aboriginal communities with high unemployment can contribute to development projects that are expected to face shortages of skilled labour.

The gathering's agenda indicates two of the three closed-door sessions on Tuesday will consider possible changes to land rules that would make it easier for first nations to create jobs on reserves and to benefit from development that may be taking place around them.

"First nations have plans," said Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, on CTV's Question Period Sunday. "We've been developing and working on them for a long time. And this is about seeking a commitment on the part of the federal Crown that they would be willing to be full partners in this work going forward."

The third session will be on education, skills and training, and boosting the participation of first nations people in the labour market. Ottawa and the AFN have discussed the possibility of new federal legislation to create accountable first nations school boards. Ottawa has also signed deals with seven provinces to work together on on-reserve education.

The Assembly of First Nations and Ottawa are planning to launch a Task Force on the Activation of First Nations Economies, which would focus on success stories such as the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, where vineyards and a golf course bring in millions in revenue.

While there has been plenty of media focus on troubled remote reserves such as Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation, a small but growing number of southern reserves are finding ways to develop local economies.

A new federal "progress" report to be discussed Tuesday morning notes that some of this success is because more than 30 first nations have opted in to the First Nations Land Management Act, a 1999 law that gives communities much more control over land rules. Ottawa is proposing to help the more than 70 other first nations that want to abandon the Indian Act's land rules in favour of the emerging regime.

While this might help some communities, new land rules won't make much of a difference for Canada's most remote reserves.

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents Manitoba's northern reserves, notes that his communities face many of the same hardships as Ontario's Attawapiskat and its housing crisis, but they have not received the same level of attention or emergency government spending.

"Every now and then I question that fact, the amount of attention that Attawapiskat has raised," he said.

Tuesday's day-long meeting comes at a time when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is preparing a budget based on departmental proposals for spending cuts. A report to be released Monday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that aboriginal programs in areas such as health and housing are clearly at risk.

Deep budget cuts in these areas would undermine any effort to "reset" the relationship, a term used of late by the AFN, particularly as Mr. Atleo faces the internal politics of a leadership vote in July.

But Mr. Harper says a focus on sharing natural-resources wealth can actually boost social funding for communities.

"We're not coming to the table with a hand out," he said. Mr. Harper argues that if the billions in mineral, hydro and forestry development in northern Manitoba were to benefit the region's communities, Ottawa could spend less in areas like on-reserve housing.

"The treaties were based on sharing the wealth," he said.