Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and other aboriginal leaders expressed cautious optimism this week in the wake of a meeting between Canada’s First Nations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In a conference call with reporters the day after the historic January 24 Crown–First Nations Gathering, Atleo noted that Harper not only opted to stay throughout the proceedings but also listened to all plenary speakers, greeted chiefs during the lunch hour and moved between the day’s concurrent sessions. The Prime Minister also participated actively in roundtable discussions, Atleo said, noting that subtle pressure would continue being applied to make sure the day’s outcome resulted in action.
Although the immediate dissolution of the Indian Act did not come about, Atleo pointed out that “many First Nations are already out from under the Indian Act” via self-government agreements. On the other side of it, he said, the federal government is still calling the shots in tinkering with the Act while keeping it relatively intact.
“That’s the pattern we’re looking to smash,” he said, the idea that the federal government needs to be the guiding force and not the First Nations themselves.
“The First Nations have very concrete plans,” Atleo said. “The key here is the need to get on to do the work jointly.”
Any efforts must be lead by First Nations and their citizens, Atleo said, especially when it comes to treaty implementation. He said he wants to move quickly on education, for one thing.
He was heartened to see one-third of the Harper cabinet there, “listening and engaged,” Atleo said, adding, “We would seek that relationship on an ongoing basis.”
Very important was the fact that that the First Nations were standing so firmly together and that “not only did the Crown have a chance to hear this but Canadians as well.”
Some aboriginal leaders were a bit skeptical. Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee of the Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) released a statement the day after the gathering.
It began with “some sources of optimism” such as an opening ceremony that referenced the Royal Proclamation of 1763, under which the Crown in Canada envisioned a nation-to-nation relationship in its dealings with First Peoples, the UOI statement said.
“But the Harper Conservatives just cannot bring themselves to truly honor the treaty relationship of sharing upon which Canada’s creation was based. They should be convening First Ministers’ meetings involving our people and the provinces to create comprehensive action plans,” Madahbee said. “Instead, they continue to rely on their bureaucrats who, like the ones who created the racist Indian Act in 1876, still act more as roadblocks to First Nations progress than facilitators.
Madahbee pointed out that Harper himself had acknowledged that old rules and ways of doing things don’t get good results.
“Let’s start working together on some new rules,” the chief said.
Atleo concurred, calling for a complete overhaul of the fiscal relationship in what he called a twofold case.
“First of all our people need the adequate supports, and the push for new fiscal relationships is part of their commitment. We need to move quickly to push for this work sooner rather than later,” he said, adding that secondly, despite current cries of a sagging world economy causing budget cuts, “Money wasn’t forthcoming to First Nations even when the economy was good in this country.”
But now, aging Baby Boomers are looking to the government asking who is going to pay for the future, while in another corner, First Nations have the fastest-growing segment of the population, Atleo said, so for its own survival’s sake Canada must buttress entrepreneurial spirit and promote economic development among aboriginal peoples.
“This far eclipses the kind of conversations that we’ve been having about the kinds of challenges we face,” he said.