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One of the great projects of modern-day Canada is reconciliation between the federal government and Indigenous peoples.

It's important and necessary work. But as a recent breakdown in negotiations between First Nations leaders and Ottawa shows, it is hampered by the lack of a definition of what reconciliation is, and what it will look like if and when it is achieved.

Three members of the executive of the Assembly of First Nations last week sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying they will no longer collaborate with Ottawa on reforming key enviromental-protection laws that they, and the government, believe have been tilted too much in the favour of industry.

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The AFN members say they don't feel like full partners in the process. But their real beef seems to be that Ottawa is moving in a direction that they don't agree with.

"Our order of priority is environmental sustainability and then the national [economic] interest," said Chief Isadore Day, one of the signatories to the letter. "The federal government's order of priority is the national interest and then environmental sustainability."

This is a reasonable difference to have. It's also a reasonable difference for two different levels of government to have. But for the current federal government, it is overshadowed by the Liberals' signature vow to achieve reconciliation – a major part of which is its promise to establish "nation-to-nation" relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Native leaders like those in the AFN believe such a relationship means that Ottawa can't approve projects that affect Indigenous territory without their "free, prior and informed consent," a term taken from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Canada, even though it is an UNDRIP signatory, has balked at giving Indigenous people what amounts to a veto over development. Its stance, which is supported by current Canadian law, is that the government must seek informed consent in good faith, but it can move forward in the national interest if that consent can't be obtained.

It's a huge difference of opinion. If one side believes an Indigenous veto over development is necessary for reconciliation, there's a good chance it won't ever be achieved. That in turn raises the question of whether there's a point to talks like the ones that stalled last week.

These are the great mysteries of reconciliation: What does it look like? Can it realistically be achieved? As far as we can tell, no one has a clue.

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