Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government promised a new focus on First Nations grievances after aboriginal leaders voiced their demands in a day of pleas, protests, warnings and high-level meetings around Parliament Hill.
After four hours of talks Friday, First Nations leaders came out of the meeting with a pledge from Harper for talks on treaty relationships and comprehensive claims.
Harper also promised to put an “enhanced oversight” on aboriginal issues in his office and the Privy Council Office, the powerful bureaucratic wing of the PMO. That could mean a more active role for the government’s top offices in resolving troublesome issues on the file.
And Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo will meet again in the coming weeks to put “some precision” on the issues agreed on Friday.
Atleo, who came under sharp criticism from other chiefs for even meeting with Harper, voiced some optimism after the session wrapped up.
“We have achieved some movement today,” Atleo said in a statement. “The Prime Minister listened respectfully to the Chiefs and responded to all they brought forward and for the first time, provided a clear mandate for high-level talks on treaty implementation. Prime Minister Harper also committed to high-level discussions on comprehensive claims.”
The meeting took place against a backdrop of rising tensions within the First Nations community, giving rise to the Idle No More movement, which has blocked highways and rail lines in recent weeks to press for action on their priorities.
Indeed, the high stakes of Friday’s meeting was driven home by several thousand people who gathered for a boisterous demonstration across the street in front of the parliament buildings.
In a statement, Harper’s office said the “government remains committed to ongoing dialogue on aboriginal issues and to taking achievable steps that will provide better outcomes in First Nations communities.”
“Everyone came to this meeting knowing we’re not going to solve everything in one go. The key is to have our commitment to work with each other,” said an official present at the meeting.
He described the tone as “very civil, very productive.”
But “that’s not to say any punches were pulled . . . it was a very frank discussion and there was a sense of urgency to it,” the official said.
However, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told reporters the Conservative government will not give in to demands to reconsider the parts of the omnibus budget implementation bills C-38 and C-45 the Assembly of First Nations argued contravene their treaty and inherent rights. The legislation streamlines regulations governing environmental protection, a shift that aboriginals see as an attack on their land and livelihoods, and was an impetus for the grassroots and growing Idle No More movement.
“We are quite comfortable that we have met our constitutional obligations with those bills and we believe there is every reason to proceed,” Duncan said.
Duncan said the government realizes that giving native bands access to resource royalties is part of any discussion about improving economic conditions for First Nations. But any changes will have to be discussed with the provinces, which have jurisdiction over resources, he noted.
There were sharp divides among First Nations leaders whether Atleo should even attend the meeting with Harper. Instead, they wanted the prime minister and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to meet on their terms.
Championing that position was Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike to force that meeting. However, in a surprise move, she left her wooden enclosure on Victoria Island, where she has spent the past month avoiding solid foods, to join other chiefs for meeting with Johnston at Rideau Hall Friday evening.
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