OTTAWA – When it comes to big conferences brimming with long speeches, pomp and circumstance, Stephen Harper’s never been much of a fan.
So his preference for smaller, more intimate and practical working meetings became his office’s bottom line as it navigated a roller coaster of negotiations with First Nations leaders over the past week.
The Governor General would stay at Rideau Hall. It would be crystal clear who had the power to make decisions.
“Our purpose was to have a meeting that was small enough that you could have a real discussion,” said one government official who was inside the room Friday as the prime minister sat down with chiefs.
“You get 200 people in a room, it’s not much of a meeting.”
Whether there was going to be a meeting at all was the subject of intense negotiations that spanned several days, including a last-ditch bid by First Nations elder statesman Ovide Mercredi to throw open the doors to more chiefs.
Mercredi tried unsuccessfully to convince the Prime Minister’s Office it needed to heed the demands of many chiefs from across the country who wanted a bigger meeting, and also wanted Gov. Gen. David Johnston to be involved.
Mercredi couldn’t conceal his disappointment.
“You have to see it this way: it’s a reflection of what we can expect from this government,” he said. “It confirms the mistrust on the (part of) government. That’s what it does.”
The meeting eventually took place in a rather bland conference room inside the Langevin Block, a stately sandstone building across from the Parliament buildings where Harper and his department — the Privy Council Office —do the bulk of their work.
The room was smudged with smoke to start things off on a good foot.
A First Nations elder said a prayer. Outside, the group could hear the chants of an Idle No More protest — 3,000 people strong, according to police estimates — in the shadow of the Peace Tower.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, sat at the head of the table, nestled between Harper and his team.
The chiefs said their piece, but Atleo spoke for them most of the time, laying out each of his points. Harper said little until the end of the four-hour gathering, setting out exactly what his government was and wasn’t prepared to do.
Rescinding or amending the controversial omnibus budget bill, for instance, was a non-starter.
There were no angry outbursts or abrupt departures. But the fact the meeting even took place was something of a victory for both Harper and Atleo.
Right up to the moment Atleo and his group of chiefs entered the building at around 1 p.m. Friday, there was uncertainty over whether the whole thing would come off. The lead-up included days of raucous, on-again, off-again negotiations.
Harper’s chief of staff was the high-level point man for the government, engaged on the issue since a rail blockade in Sarnia before Christmas, one official said.
The Assembly of First Nations tasked three respected chiefs to develop a workable agenda for the meeting: Mercredi, Metis activist Perry Bellegarde and B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The four met to hash out the structure of the meeting Wednesday night.
“There was a lot of opposition to attending a meeting where not all the chiefs would be included, also where the agenda was predetermined,” Mercredi said.
“So we had a big discussion about crafting our agenda, together with the government and getting a process that would be inclusive, but also the governor general would be present.”
Wright did make several concessions on behalf of the government. He agreed to open up the agenda beyond treaty negotiations and economic development, as originally proposed, and entertain discussion about housing, murdered and missing women and the impact on the environment of Harper’s budget bills.
But the PMO wouldn’t budge on the structure of the meeting — a crucial point for many of the bands from central Ontario and Manitoba whose treaties were signed by a representative of the Queen.
“We were trying to impress upon the government to include the Governor General in the meeting. And also to make it more open by having it televised. And but also we expressed for it to be inclusive,” Mercredi recalled.
Harper’s team did finally instruct the Governor General to hold a ceremonial meeting Friday evening at Rideau Hall. But there was no question of involving Johnston directly in the meetings themselves.
“Our real bottom line was that it couldn’t be the same meeting because that line can’t get blurred,” said the official.
“We’re the ones responsible here, we’re the ones that can act and have to act. Not the Governor General. There’s nothing he can do constitutionally, so we didn’t want to give that impression.”
The chiefs continued to press Wright for Johnston’s involvement, but to no avail. Mercredi broke the news to chiefs from across Canada during a meeting late Thursday at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
The room erupted in outrage.
“They weren’t mad at me. They tried to send me to get a better meeting. They were mad at the government (for) not listening,” said Mercredi.
“That’s the reason why people are out there protesting, because the government is not listening.”
Regional groups of First Nations huddled Friday morning as the AFN made a last-ditch, unsuccessful effort to persuade the PMO to open up the meeting in order to unite all the chiefs.
For many of the treaty bands, it was too much to stomach, said Grand Chief Harvey Yesno of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario.
On the government side, Harper and his team bided their time, said little publicly, and waited for Atleo to work out exactly who was coming.
In the end, Harper got what he wanted — a smaller meeting with the AFN executive, some regional chiefs, and ultimately something to announce.
“We knew we couldn’t get a desirable outcome unless we had a process that was small enough and representative enough, and Atleo pulled that together today,” said the official.