After last Friday’s high-stakes meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Assembly of First Nations, Jody Wilson-Raybould wasted no time flying back to the restful ocean views of her home in the reserve village of Cape Mudge, on British Columbia’s Quadra Island. But Wilson-Raybould, the AFN’s B.C. regional chief, and a key ally of its national chief, Shawn Atleo, couldn’t really escape. Atleo announced on Monday that he would be stepping aside temporarily to recover from a stomach flu and exhaustion. He left Wilson-Raybould, along with Perry Bellegarde, Saskatchewan’s regional chief, to take the lead in planning for the AFN’s crucial next meeting with Harper later this month. In a phone interview from Cape Mudge, she said the Prime Minister’s engagement gives her hope of being able to push past recent federal tactics, particularly in land claims talks, which she described as “an insult.”
The architect of those tactics is another British Columbian, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. Considering the intense focus on his department in recent weeks, Duncan’s profile has stayed low. He remains Harper’s lead minister on the file, though, and a key figure in the story being driven by Idle No More—the loosely coordinated protest movement, mainly of Aboriginal youth—and the month-long hunger strike of Attawapiskat, Ont.’s Chief Theresa Spence. Duncan denies the claim, so often asserted as the underlying cause of the upheaval, that First Nations are stalled in poverty. He points to some 70 reserves, for instance, that have signed a federal law that gives them greater freedom to manage their own land. “Those communities are, for the most part, really moving forward,” he said. “They are not the people that are out there demonstrating.”
It’s hard to detect any common ground between Duncan’s dismissal of the demonstrators and Wilson-Raybould’s view that Ottawa’s approach is deeply flawed. Yet she sits squarely in the moderate, conciliatory camp among First Nations leaders, far more willing to work with the government than, say, Derek Nepinak, the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who praises “those people who have broken free from the dictates of colonial powers.” The range of policy files in play, from education to resources, is daunting. Still, much of the tension can be traced to a few, long-standing issues—and what happens next on land claims could signal a breakthrough or a breakdown in the process begun under so much pressure.
The AFN is demanding a more open-handed approach from the federal government on so-called comprehensive claims. These modern treaties give First Nations control over land, usually with a cash settlement and a guaranteed stake in resource development. Between the 1970s and 1990s, major claims were settled with, among others, the James Bay Cree, the Yukon First Nations and the Inuit of what became Nunavut. But further progress has been tortuously slow. In two decades under a special B.C. claims process, only two claims have been settled. Wilson-Raybould said Harper should replace what she describes as the “take-it-or-leave it” attitude of federal negotiators with a new “flexibility.”
But Duncan’s version of what’s blocking deals is entirely different. Last September, he sent a letter to First Nations telling them he plans to suspend some of the 93 ongoing comprehensive claims negotiations. Only those “tables” showing clear signs of progress will be kept active. He invited groups to explain why theirs deserve to be continued. He told Maclean’s some negotiations are being dragged out for all the wrong reasons. “There’s always people that are benefiting from ongoing talks without really achieving progress,” he said. Asked who benefits, he said: “Lawyers, consultants, advisers, etc.” Negotiating claims can, it seems, be a lucrative business: Duncan said Ottawa has loaned First Nations groups about $700 million so far to take part in the process. The threat of suspensions later this year, he added, has already begun to clarify which tables are serious.
Wilson-Raybould said Duncan is imposing his own narrow view of what bargaining aims are reasonable. “He is putting forward his own definition of what success means,” she said. The AFN now invests hope in Harper’s pledge to make his Prime Minister’s Office officials more directly involved. “There was movement on that from the Prime Minister, on that need for high-level dialogue,” Wilson-Raybould said. While the AFN urges Harper to take a conciliatory role, Duncan is striving to prove he can get results his way. Last fall, he made new cash and land offers to eight B.C. First Nations in a bid to settle their claims. “One was accepted within days,” he said, “and others, we feel very confident, will be accepted once they’ve done their full analysis.”
His strategy is to try to work with which ever First Nations are willing to do business with him. The fact that some Aboriginal communities are evidently finding ways forward can be tricky for First Nations leaders to acknowledge, much less emphasize, in a public debate focused on dire problems. After all, statistics on native unemployment and undereducation, addiction and violence remain a national disgrace. Chief Spence’s hunger strike highlights the worst cases, like her northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, where abysmal housing drew wide attention last year. Given the depth and variety of the problems, any progress is bound to look uneven and incremental. So the political challenge facing both the AFN and the ruling Conservatives may be to convey a broader sense of momentum without seeming to deny the ongoing crisis.
Along with demanding a fresh start on land claims, the AFN is pressing on key issues like resource-revenue sharing and education. To give First Nations a piece of the action from mining, forestry and other development, there is not much Harper can do beyond pressuring the provinces and territories that collect the resource royalties. A model might now be emerging in the Northwest Territories. Talks on devolving powers from the federal level to the territorial government in Yellowknife include provisions for a substantial share of resource revenues to flow directly to First Nations. (This would be above the lucrative share of diamond mine royalties some of the territory’s Aboriginals already collect under settled comprehensive claims.) On education, Duncan plans to begin consultations this month on a First Nations education act, which the government hopes to implement by next year.
None of these developments seem of much interest to the Idle No More protesters. As this story went to press, Spence continued to inspire them by subsisting on fish soup and tea in a teepee on an island in the Ottawa River not far from Parliament Hill. She demands a joint meeting of AFN leaders with Harper and Governor General David Johnston. The separate meetings Harper and Johnston held last Friday with chiefs didn’t meet her terms. Even some of her staunch supporters, though, like Saskatchewan’s Bellegarde, were urging her to eat. “She can leave her fast with dignity and honour,” Bellegard said. “Her work’s done.” As for those who must somehow craft policies compelling enough to satisfy the new demands for change, their work has only begun.