OTTAWA – The highly politicized meeting between Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders is underway, taking place in the prime minister’s Langevin Block office despite pleas that it be moved.
About 20 First Nations leaders attended the meeting, representing most areas of the country — even after a tumultuous night of talks that saw chief after chief reject the meeting because it was not on their turf or on their terms.
They are meeting with Harper — who, contrary to the original plan, is staying for the duration of the talks, a spokesman says — and several key cabinet ministers: Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement.
Missing from the government list was Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whom First Nations were hoping to meet to discuss a different way of sharing the bounty from natural resource extraction.
On the First Nations side, Manitoba, Ontario and Northwest Territories stuck to their guns and did not send high-level representation, according to lists of attendees from the government and from the Assembly of First Nations.
Indeed, Manitoba chiefs with headdresses and drums blocked one of the entrances to the building across the street from Parliament Hill, signalling their opposition both to Harper and to the Assembly of First Nations leaders who agreed to attend the meeting.
At the same time, thousands of protesters filled the streets around Parliament Hill, chanting, dancing and demanding that Harper act to improve the conditions on reserves.
“I do think that we have a responsibility here as leaders, and we need to be courageous and be able to go into this meeting and be able to present to the prime minister, and tell him this is what we want,” said Quebec Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come.
Coon Come’s participation in the meeting is significant because the former national chief is known for taking a hard line against the government. Instead, he appears to be siding with the moderate current national chief — Shawn Atleo — at a crucial time in his leadership.
Atleo has defied some of his key regional chiefs for going to the meeting in spite of the fact that Gov. Gen. David Johnston is not there, and it’s taking place on the prime minister’s turf.
But it remains to be seen whether the two sides can find enough common ground to re-establish Atleo’s leadership, repair the Crown-First Nations relationship and quell restless protesters across the country demanding a better quality of life for aboriginal communities.
Atleo had carefully cobbled together a fragile consensus by Thursday on what kinds of demands to present to the prime minister. But that consensus was ditched as factions fought each other over the mechanics of the meeting itself.
First Nations were also scheduled to meet separately with Johnston at Rideau Hall later Friday at a private “ceremonial” meeting.