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Harper's Conservatives see possible common ground with Idle No More movement

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OTTAWA - Amid all the anti-Harper, anti-government placards and slogans, it's hard to imagine the Conservatives see any positives from the Idle No More movement.

And yet going into Friday's meeting with First Nations chiefs, the government says it does see a nexus between its policy desires and the grassroots uprising — a belief that the current system of aboriginal governance is broken in Canada.

"I think if you see where Idle No More has been trending, it's been some disenfranchisement with all levels of government, including their own First Nations leadership," said Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs.

"If we can pull the positives out of this — and I believe there are a number of positives — we agree. We can't ... afford on so many levels to have community members sitting idly by when we have tremendous economic opportunities, particularly across northern Canada."

Young people in particular are getting a chance to finally engage on critical issues by using social media to organize, said Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge.

"I think it's an indication of the opportunity for aboriginal people to be able to speak their minds without having to follow the traditional channels that I think have probably limited many aboriginal citizens in the past," said Bruinooge, himself a Metis who represents the riding of Winnipeg South.

Here's where it gets tricky for Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Although they might see some common ground with the Idle No More movement, Friday's meeting is with First Nations chiefs, not the grassroots.

One chief in particular — Theresa Spence of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario — has become a lightning rod for the entire movement since embarking on a high-profile protest in the shadow of Parliament Hill.

Spence, who has been subsisting since Dec. 11 on fish broth and medicinal tea while camped out on an island in the Ottawa River, said Wednesday she won't attend the meeting in Ottawa without the Governor General, who has said he won't be there.

Idle No More co-founder Sheelah McLean told the Leader-Post newspaper in Regina this week that Spence still enjoys tremendous support. No one from the federal government has approached the movement, she added.

The Conservatives will proceed with or without Spence, and insist the meeting — set up at the request of the Assembly of First Nations — isn't about issues on a single reserve.

"We've responded to their invitation for this next step, this meeting on Friday, and I will leave the decision with respect to who will be there to the Assembly of First Nations," Rickford said.

The government says Friday's meeting will include a large plenary session, with three priority areas up for discussion: economic development on reserves, aboriginal rights and treaty relationships. There will be smaller, break-out sessions during the day.

The language around the meetings has been singularly upbeat coming out of the government, with talk of future, regular meetings and open ears. One of the central Idle No More complaints has been about a lack of consultation between the federal government and aboriginals on key pieces of legislation, including the government's controversial budget implementation bills.

Recently retired Conservative Sen. Gerry St. Germain, a Metis, said it's imperative that First Nations be given the chance to govern themselves, and get their fair share of the country's resources and wealth.

But he said aboriginal leaders need to come to the table with more than just grievances this week and beyond.

"I believe that aboriginal peoples have to be part and parcel of the solution; they have to come forward with ideas and not just come and say it isn't working," said St. Germain.

Bruinooge said the government has actually done a lot for aboriginal peoples, but hasn't done a good job of making that clear.

"I think that people like myself need to do a better job of communicating the important achievements that we've made for aboriginal people," Bruinooge said.

"I think that's our job as politicians, to be able to communicate our good work in an effective way — there's definitely work to do there."

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