OTTAWA – First Nations leaders have formed a consensus around a list of demands for Friday’s meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
After round-the-clock discussions among chiefs, elders and top-ranking government officials, National Chief Shawn Atleo and two of his most prominent regional chiefs say they expect significant, concrete commitments for action from Harper — or risk further unrest in the streets from grassroots youth.
“That’s what we’re looking for: transformational change,” Atleo told a news conference Thursday, an event that was delayed 24 hours so Assembly of First Nations leaders could cobble together a consensus that would also give Harper something to work with.
In the short term, First Nations leaders want Harper to agree to a national inquiry into the many hundreds of aboriginal women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered. They also want a commitment to making sure every First Nation community has a school.
And they want the prime minister to pull back key sections of his two budget omnibus bills that radically changed environmental oversight in favour of natural resource extraction.
For the medium term, they want Harper to set up a new process to examine the implementation of treaties. Atleo and Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde want to see the process run out of the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office so that federal negotiators actually have some power. They also want to see strict timelines for delivery of results.
“There has to be a high level of commitment, ongoing,” Bellegarde said.
They will also be asking Harper to designate a minister — possibly Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — to bring together First Nations and provincial governments to figure out how First Nations can better participate in resource extraction and share in resource revenues.
And eventually, they want Ottawa to take a clear-eyed look at the Indian Act and all legislation, through the lens of aboriginal rights as enshrined in Section 35 of the Constitution. An audit of all legislation through that lens would lead to the dismantling of the Indian Act and its eventual replacement with a regime that recognized self-determination, said B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould.
“Governments need to understand that our resolve is absolute,” said Atleo. “Our demands are backed by one Supreme Court decision after another.”
But Atleo and the two regional chiefs who flanked him could not promise that the meeting planned for Friday afternoon would actually take place.
Manitoba and Ontario chiefs have threatened not to attend unless Gov. Gen. David Johnston is also there.
Johnston has refused to get involved, but Harper told Johnston on Thursday to hold a separate “ceremonial” meeting with chiefs on Friday afternoon at Rideau Hall. And some chiefs say they want Harper and Johnston to come meet them at their hotel, rather than in government buildings.
Now, chiefs are meeting to see if the concession is enough to salvage a process that was meant to bring an end to a month-long protest by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and quiet grassroots demonstrations and blockades across the country.
“Our unified position will be to the prime minister, to the Governor General and to whatever entourage he chooses to bring (Friday) — provided that the prime minister meets the requests of Chief Theresa Spence to ensure the presence of the Governor General,” said Manitoba’s grand chief, Derek Nepinak.
First Nations signed their treaties with a representative of the Queen, and since this week’s meetings are about modernizing those treaties, they need the Queen’s representative present once again, said David Harper, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak in the northern part of the province.
“If he’s absent, there will be no dialogue.”
It was Spence’s month-long protest which triggered the idea of a meeting between aboriginal leaders and the federal government in the first place.
“This didn’t just pop up yesterday,” Nepinak said, pointing out that Spence had always asked for Johnston to be part of the process.
“We’re not here to sign a new funding deal, or to make … new funding arrangements. That’s not what we’re here for. We recognize 140 years of colonial rule in our territory, 140 years of colonial rule that has created great consequences, devastating consequences for our communities,” Nepinak explained.
As a result, Manitoba First Nations are now short 17,000 homes, lack clean drinking water and have poor health outcomes, he said.
“There are great and heavy consequences that weigh on the shoulders of our people, and we have had enough.”
Separately, the Chiefs of Ontario organization also said the presence of the Governor General at the Friday meetings would be pivotal.
“Be absolutely clear that should this meeting not occur, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Governor General.”