History does repeat itself, it would appear.
Pierre Trudeau had his constitutional conferences that involved aboriginal leaders. Brian Mulroney had his too, plus a big session in British Columbia to launch the B.C. Treaty Commission process, which has been a discouraging flop.
Jean Chrétien often went on about how splendidly he got along with the chiefs, having been Indian Affairs minister early in his career. Paul Martin had his Kelowna Accord. Stephen Harper had his reconciliation/apology statement over residential schools and, Tuesday, a day-long session with the chiefs.
Along the way, the national leadership of the Assembly of First Nations has obviously changed, as have the local chiefs. But the dialogue seldom changes, on either side of the table. Sonorous clichés mix with history lessons about "settlers" and their perfidy, lessons are repeated about the "honour of the Crown" and treaties that are/were not respected. Discreet references are offered about the discouraging economic and social statistics of aboriginal people, complaints are aired about insufficient public funding, occasional threats are made about the potential for violence and then things continue pretty much as before, out there in the real world, far removed from the conferences with their ceremonies and solemnities.
The Department of Indian Affairs recognizes 615 first nations. Within that tapestry are 60 languages, most of which are in decline for lack of population. According to the last Statistics Canada survey (2006), 29 per cent of aboriginals said they could speak well enough to carry on a conversation in their native language. Off reserve, the figure fell to 12 per cent.
Slowly, aboriginals are drifting away from reserves (where the chiefs dominate) because, despite whatever cultural support the reserves provide, many have little or no economic base, which is the real story behind the headlines about social and housing problems along James Bay.
Speaking of housing, that same Statistics Canada survey found 44 per cent of houses on reserve were in need of "major repairs" – up from 36 per cent in 1966 – compared with 9 per cent of homes in rural Canada. What accounts for such shocking indifference?
Is it because property ownership barely exists, so a renter mentality takes over? Is it because the people living in the houses have lost self-respect? Is it because the houses are often crowded, or poorly made to begin with? Is it because governments haven't spent enough money, the usual answer from communities? Where are the chiefs who are supposed to be running their communities? Whatever the explanations, such dilapidation is a scandal, and one reason, among many, for the drift away from reserves.
Tuesday, education was much on everyone's mind, as it has been at previous conferences. The gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal education accomplishments are wide and dangerous – dangerous because poor education stunts economic opportunities and can lead to dead-end lives.
Native chiefs insist that communities should run their own school systems, which makes sense in some but not all cases. They also complain, not without reason, that funding has not kept pace, with their birth rate being so much higher than the Canadian average.
What aboriginal groups really need is more economic opportunity of the kind that comes with education and a bigger share in development projects. If aboriginals have land with natural resources to be extracted, or pipelines or hydro lines to cross it, then they should benefit from royalties, direct ownership and jobs.
This sharing will definitely help some aboriginal communities, but will leave others with little because their lands are too isolated. There's also the fact that 60 per cent of aboriginals now live off the reserves. They might share in the royalties negotiated by their reserve, but resource projects won't help them in large- or even medium-sized cities.
Economic development, and how to achieve it, will be at the heart of the discussions between Mr. Harper's government and the chiefs. It's the kind of language the Conservatives understand and favour, and it's what aboriginal leaders want.
It will also be at the heart of the re-election campaign of AFN national chief Shawn Atleo, who will be seriously challenged, and possibly unseated, at July's convention in Toronto.