Harper, chiefs set course for future talks on economy
Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:08PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:15AM EDT
Ottawa and First Nations chiefs have agreed to a direction for future discussions after the conclusion of a day of meetings between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, senior government officials and hundreds of native leaders.
In a joint statement, the federal government and the chiefs acknowledged they have had a contentious relationship and mistakes can't be repeated.
"Unfortunately, there have been low points in our relationship. A series of misguided and harmful government policies in our past has shaken First Nations confidence in our relationship," the statement said.
"We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them and affirm that they will not be repeated."
They agreed to set up task forces and working groups on issues such as economic development, and report back on the progress they've made in one year.
However, the day of talks began Tuesday with speeches showing the two sides are far apart on the future of the Indian Act.
Speaking to an audience gathered at an Ottawa conference centre, Harper said the time has come to "reset the relationship" as his government moves to update the act.
However, Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the act is impeding any collaboration.
"Built on the disgraceful premise of our inferiority, aimed at assimilation and the destruction of our cultures, it was a complete abrogation of the partnership between respectful nations," Atleo said in a speech directly after Harper's.
"Largely unchanged, it remains a painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful partnership."
But Harper is pushing for an incremental approach to updating the Indian Act for 21st century Canada and has no plans of repealing it all together.
"From the rules you set, come the results you get. And the incentives buried in the Indian Act self-evidently lead to outcomes that we all deplore," Harper said.
"To be sure, our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act. After 136 years that treaty has deep roots, blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole."
Harper, who was supposed to leave the summit shortly after his speech at about noon, ended up staying for most of the afternoon.
Clint Davis, the CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, said Tuesday's meetings are being greeted positively.
"I've had a few discussions with some chiefs and they were cautiously optimistic about how the day has gone, particularly when talking about unlocking the economic potential of reserves," he told CTV's National Affairs from Ottawa Tuesday afternoon.
"It sounds like some chiefs are optimistic that this is a positive step forward."
But Davis says there seems to be a consensus from First Nations chiefs that the Indian Act should be scrapped.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of British Columbia for the Assembly of First Nations, said there's apprehension from chiefs but many of them are pleased with the opportunity to put their problems and solutions before the prime minister.
"There is a need to reset the relationship, and figure out ways to engage with one another . . . to seek joint solutions to a lot of challenges," she told National Affairs.
"Through ongoing dialogue with the prime minister we establish a level of trust and a level of understanding between our leadership and the federal government."
Parliamentary Secretary of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Greg Rickford said today's meetings were an "important template."
"We're hearing the things that need to be told," he told CTV's Power Play.
The Indian Act-- defining everything from who has First Nations status, to how reserves should be managed and even the effect of marriage on status -- was last amended in 2000.
Since its passage into law in 1876, the Indian Act has given Ottawa exclusive jurisdiction over "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians."
But there are ways, Harper said, to achieve "practical, incremental and real change" both within and outside the bounds of the act.
The government's approach, he said, would be "to replace elements of the Indian Act with more modern legislation and procedures in partnership with provinces and First Nations."
Harper's speech came as the Crown-First Nations conference -- with its ambitious agenda covering a range of long-simmering issues such as housing, education, and widespread poverty -- got underway.
"Our goal is much increased aboriginal participation in the economy and the country's prosperity. And we have no illusion about the enormous work that lies ahead of us," Harper said.
But Atleo's condemnation of the act suggested a wide chasm exists between the First Nations chiefs and the Conservative government.
"This legislation has utterly failed our people and failed Canada," Atleo said.
"Today must mark the beginning of renewal. The beginning of realizing our shared potential foretold in the visions of our ancestors. But the proof of our commitment will begin tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead -- demonstrating that this time, this generation of leaders will not fail to make the changes that we know are urgently needed."
The speeches came after the morning's proceedings were kicked off with drums, chants and a smudge ceremony also attended by Governor General David Johnston and an assortment of approximately 170 chiefs, cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.
"We gather reflecting the spirit of our hearts and belief as a people," Assiniboine elder Dave Courchene said in a speech during the opening ceremony.
In his remarks a short while later, the Governor General echoing Courchene's welcoming message.
"I am inspired and I am hopeful seeing us here together," Johnston said.
In a surprise move Monday, Harper met with the chiefs for a roundtable discussion that allowed the leaders to outline their concerns and their agenda.
He and Johnston held a brief closed-door session with Atleo and other elders as they arrived at the Ottawa conference centre Tuesday morning.
Ahead of the meetings, First Nations leaders have made it clear they would like to come away with a federal commitment to address both short-term crises in their communities, as well as their longstanding relationship with Ottawa.
The meeting comes at a time of heightened tensions between the federal government and the Aboriginal community following the declaration of a state of emergency in Attawapiskat last fall.
The reserve near Timmins, Ont. drew attention for its poor living conditions, broadcast nationwide in images of dilapidated, uninsulated homes, many of them infested with mold.
That prompted the federal government to send in its own manager to take over the town, laying blame on the band and chief for mismanagement of funds.
The situation in Attawapiskat is not unique, with many other reserves complaining of similar issues.