OTTAWA — A much-publicized and divisive meeting between native leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended Friday with the Conservative government agreeing to revisit historic treaties and speed up comprehensive land claims, but there was nobody from Manitoba at the table.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said the meetings "achieved some movement."
"The prime minister listened respectfully to chiefs and responded to all they brought forward, and for the first time, provided a clear mandate for high-level talks on treaty implementation."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan spoke with reporters and said the afternoon was productive.
"While we’re pleased with the constructive discussions that took place today, there is still more work to be done to improve living conditions and economic opportunities for First Nation communities."
Harper ended up spending the entire afternoon at the meeting instead of just attending the beginning and end as originally planned. He also agreed to brief his cabinet on the meeting and start using both his office and the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office, to oversee issues such as treaty implementation and comprehensive claims.
Duncan called those issues "sticky items which are identified, which could use some direction from the centre."
Another meeting between Atleo and Harper will take place in the coming weeks to discuss the next steps, but no specific date or location was announced.
It appears unlikely any of this will quiet either the Idle No More protest movement or the growing rift within the AFN, particularly over Atleo’s leadership. More than 4,000 protesters marched on Parliament Hill on Friday, calling on the government to respect treaties and start treating indigenous peoples with the respect and rights they are entitled to receive. Many of them were not happy the meeting was going forward at all and some chiefs are already calling for railroad and highway blockades next week.
A reported 19 First Nations chiefs were at the meeting, but none from Manitoba, Ontario or the Northwest Territories. Chiefs from there and dozens of others boycotted the event after Harper refused to allow Gov. Gen. David Johnston to attend or move the meeting to a hotel so more chiefs could attend.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said Friday afternoon the day’s meeting was going to be too much like the Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa a year ago that accomplished nothing.
"I think we went home demoralized last year... where we went into a room and the prime minister spoke in our general direction," he said. "We knew that wasn’t good enough, but as the grand chief, I maintained optimism coming out of there hoping that something would yield out of that, and nothing ever did. So coming back here again, we knew we couldn’t engage with him on his terms; it had to be on our terms."
Manitoba Conservative MP Shelly Glover said she was disappointed nobody from Manitoba was at the table.
"I’m very disappointed in Grand Chief Nepinak and Manitoba representatives," she said. "It’s only through dialogue that we can move forward."
Nepinak said he was "absolutely not" happy Atleo and other chiefs went ahead with the meeting, but he would not say yet whether that means he or others in Manitoba will start challenging Atleo’s leadership.
"I’d be out of line if I said certain things, but in terms of him leading a national organization, there is a great diversity in perspective," said Nepinak. "We wanted him to stand strong based on the natural law, based on the prophesy, and there is disappointment."
Nepinak said he plans to go home, regroup and decide next week with other Manitoba chiefs what to do.
Nepinak also declined to attend a ceremonial meeting Friday night with Johnston at Rideau Hall, though some Manitoba chiefs did go, along with Cross Lake elder Raymond Robinson. Robinson has been refusing solid food for more than a month in a protest against recent budget bills he says violate the constitutional right to consultation and infringe on First Nations’ independence on matters of the environment and band autonomy.
Duncan said there was no agreement to repeal or reconsider the two budget bills.