First Nations want action from PM: ‘This better be more than a photo op’
January 20th, 2012 - 10:00am
By: Sonya Bell
Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012
The one-day conference between First Nations and the Crown was announced in early December, as Ottawa came under fire for the housing crisis on the northern Ontario reserve. Chiefs have been calling for the meeting since their 2010 annual general assembly.
Though they’re finally sitting down to talk, the chiefs and the federal government are heading to the table with very different expectations for the conference’s outcome.
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says their goal is to fundamentally transform the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and have their self-government agreement honoured.
“We must stop lurching from crisis to crisis and move forward on a path to smash the status quo,” Atleo wrote in a recent letter to parliamentarians. “Canada needs to change its practices and approach to fully recognize our relationship as Nations, as outlined in the Treaties and reflective of our inherent rights to govern our own affairs.”
Meanwhile, Harper told Peter Mansbridge in an interview Monday that he is a hoping to have a “very positive dialogue” at the meeting.
“This is a long-term challenge,” Harper said. “Aboriginal people in this country are not anywhere near where we want or need those communities to be. That said, my own experience is that it will not be grand visions and declarations that achieve these things. It will be moving forward one step at a time, as we’ve been trying to do on things like water, investments in education, obviously building of trust.”
But a positive dialogue alone won’t do, says NDP aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan. The chiefs are looking for a sign that Harper understands that they want fundamental changes in their relationship with the Crown.
“I’m getting the clear message from every First Nations leader I talk to that this better be more than a photo op for the prime minister,” Duncan said. “In other words, they’re not going to go away happy just because the summit happened. They’re expecting concrete deliverables out of this meeting. That doesn’t mean that every detail is in there, but they’re very clearly looking for final recognition of them as an order of government.”
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser, as well as the Assembly of First Nations, have said the way to do this is through a legislative base. Duncan agrees, and adds the federal government will also need to kick in the appropriate resources.
“[First Nations] want long-term financial commitments through statutory framework, which is a perfectly reasonable request — they are an order of government, just like the provinces and territories. And they are looking with that to substantial commitment of dollars for capacity building. It’s fine to sign an agreement for self-government, but it’s another thing to give them the support so they can deliver their responsibilities.”
Though the meeting will only last one day, Duncan is optimistic that if Harper has done the legwork ahead of time, he may put a framework on the table.
Harper has been making the rounds with aboriginal groups this month, and met with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents off-reserve aboriginals, in Ottawa on Monday.
National Chief Betty Ann Lavallée said she took the opportunity to discuss the CAP national strategy plan with the prime minister. When he meets with her on-reserve counterparts next week, she’ll be watching to see what he does. Based on her own experience, he will be reasonable but moderate.
“He’s very upfront on what he wants to do,” she said. “I find him to be very practical and down-to-earth. If you’re going to go in with a proposal, it should be down-to-earth and reasonable and say what is the cost and what is the benefit to the community, and how is it going to eradicate the problem over a period of time, and what are the end results that you’re hoping to achieve.”
But Lavallée dismisses the suggestion that the assembly meeting is the result of the Attawapiskat crisis alone. The government has always paid attention to aboriginal leaders, she says.
“They’ve always been very interested,” she said. “But when I say interested, they’re interested in solid, achievable, not pie-in-the sky stuff. They’ve always shown me very large support.”
Missing from the CAP meeting on Monday was Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, who was recently hospitalized with a heart problem.
Though there is some speculation that Duncan’s health problems, and his weak performance during the Attawapiskat crisis, could spark a cabinet shuffle, Duncan is slated to be at next week’s meeting.
Moira Wolstenholme, a spokeswoman for the minister, said the meeting represents “real action” and “an opportunity to work together to further improve the quality of life and long-term economic prosperity of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.”
For her part, Linda Duncan believes Harper is the most important one to have at the table.
“This is the prime minister’s show. How quickly it ratchets down to ministers and deputies and low-level officials, wait to see,” Duncan said.
The meeting will be held at Ottawa’s John G. Diefenbaker building. According to a preliminary schedule, the morning will begin with opening ceremonies and a keynote address. The meetings are planned for the afternoon, concluding with closing remarks and a prayer.
The day before the conference, the Assembly of First Nations is planning a pre-session at the Chateau Laurier.
“This will provide us all with an opportunity to receive the latest information on the Gathering, confirm our delegations, conduct our own ceremonies and be fully prepared for the Gathering itself,” Atleo wrote in a letter to chiefs. “This day will also include an opportunity for regional or other caucus as requested.”
Atleo also highlighted how the Assembly of First Nations has taken strides to make the meeting as inclusive as possible. There will be 11 teleconference sites across the country, including one at the Chateau Laurier for those in Ottawa. Written submissions are also being welcomed from all nations for a website.
The full list of VIPs who will attend has not been released, but the NDP is watching to see whether Harper includes a full team of cabinet ministers. That would impress Duncan, who says the issue is much bigger than the aboriginal affairs portfolio.
“You need the justice minister there, you need infrastructure ministers, the health minister. It’s pretty clear to me you need the natural resources minister. So it’ll be interesting to see who’s there.”