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Native leader complains of government inertia

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OTTAWA -- The scaffold Prime Minister Stephen Harper erected in January to help boost the independence and prosperity of Canada's First Nations is being corroded by inaction and risks collapsing in a familiar cloud of inertia and distrust, newly obtained correspondence suggests.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, lays bare the frustrations of Canada's native leaders in a pair of scathing letters sent last month to Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

The letters, obtained by The Canadian Press, decry a total lack of progress on issues Harper promised in January to address -- education, comprehensive claims, treaty implementation, economic development and fiscal arrangements.

"There has been a loss of momentum and sense of frustration (that) is being felt by the First Nation leadership," Atleo writes in the three-page letter to Harper.

"This is exacerbated by the federal government's broader legislative agenda, which has the potential for harmful impacts on First Nations, including changes to environmental regulation, fisheries and criminal justice."

Atleo accuses Harper of continuing to push legislation and a fragmented agenda he knows First Nations communities will oppose, eroding what little trust existed between natives and the Crown.

In his five-page letter to Duncan, Atleo examines each of the issues Ottawa and chiefs had agree to tackle and describes how bureaucratic inertia and lack of mandate have stymied each conversation.

"First Nations leadership have keenly engaged in good faith to begin a dialogue only to be met by AANDC officials indicating that they have no mandate to even enter into discussions," he writes.

But a government insider close to the talks expressed similar frustration with First Nations leaders.

Progress is proving elusive because First Nations themselves don't have a coherent, unified idea of what they want, the source said.

"They don't really know what they're looking for or asking for," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's sort of like nailing Jell-O to the wall."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 A14

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