Stephen Harper is pledging to take a more hands-on role in managing the relationship between the government and Canada’s native people, the head of the Assembly of First Nations says.
The promise came during a five-hour meeting on Friday of 22 chiefs, Mr. Harper, and government officials that, at times, seemed unlikely to get off the ground. It suggests that the Prime Minister will now provide the momentum on such thorny issues as treaty negotiations, resource revenue sharing and land claims.
The talks carried on as as Idle No More protesters took to the streets of Canada, as an Ontario chief continued a hunger strike to press for change, as first-nations leaders threatened widespread disruptions and blockades, and as schisms within the AFN over the structure of the meeting had some chiefs arguing it should never have happened.
“We achieved some movement today,” said Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN. “Every leader left with the sense that the Prime Minister is now prepared to lead and to take responsibility right from his office.”
After a first-nations-Crown gathering a year ago, there was an expectation of movement on treaty implementation and comprehensive claims, Mr. Atleo said. But when first nations tried to move ahead on those issues, they were told there was no mandate from the Prime Minister, he said. “So we have now received, from the highest level, that political mandate,” Mr. Atleo said.
There is also a commitment to continue discussions, he said. And although no schedule has been set for big gatherings that would be open to all chiefs, the door has been left open for them to occur, he said.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan called the meeting constructive and said Mr. Harper agreed that there should be more oversight from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office on certain issues.
The Prime Minister committed to “a higher level of oversight in terms of those sticky items which are identified which could use some direction from the centre,” Mr. Duncan said.
The lead-up to the discussions was tumultuous, with first nations from Ontario and Manitoba and chiefs from other regions refusing to take part because the Prime Minister, who stayed in the room for the full meeting instead of leaving for part of the time as he had originally planned, unilaterally determined where it would be held and how many people would participate.
The government also insisted that Governor-General David Johnston, who held a ceremonial meeting with chiefs later in the day, could not be at the working meeting during the afternoon.
Governors-General do not usually get involved in the day-to-day business of government, but Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat insisted that he be there. When it was determined that he would not come, Ms. Spence refused to attend and other chiefs followed suit. She also said she would not end her hunger strike.
Many of the chiefs who boycotted the meeting remained angry on Friday – some saying Mr. Atleo should not have acceded to the government’s demands.
But Mr. Atleo is not the only target of their frustration. Some first-nations leaders predicted repercussions for all Canadians in the weeks and days ahead, including blockades that are planned to shut down major transportation corridors in Ontario and other provinces on Jan. 15.
Before the meeting, thousands of people walked down Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa on Friday afternoon, carrying flags, chanting and beating on drums.
Speaking on the steps of Parliament Hill, Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson of Cross Lake said he has been fasting for the past month and is demanding the repeal of omnibus budget legislation known as Bill C-45.
“We are one nation,” he told the crowd over a loud speaker. “If you want our lands … Over my dead body, Harper, are you going to take it.”
Meanwhile, the founders of Idle No More held a meeting of their own, along with supporters and chiefs, at an aboriginal government building in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.
Part pep-rally, part strategy session, the assembled discussed ideas for keeping the movement going. They criticized the session with Mr. Harper, saying that it did not include discussions on the repeal of the omnibus legislation that spurred their protest.
“People are wondering why Idle No More is not in Ottawa. … We didn’t go because we saw the agenda, and they’re not even going to talk about removing those bills in Parliament. They’re not even going to talk about removing the threats to land and water,” said Sylvia McAdam, one of the movement’s four founders. “They’re going to talk about economic prosperity. Those words are beautiful, but it means we’re going to have to give up our land.”