Next week will be pivotal for Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader Derek Nepinak and aboriginal Canada.
Nepinak plans to outline the shape of a new national direction for aboriginals, one many see as rivalling the grip on negotiations with Ottawa the Assembly of First Nations now holds.
Nepinak's presentation, to be delivered in Onion Lake, Sask., from July 14-18, deals with a National Treaty Alliance.
But earlier this week, Nepinak said he wasn't ready to announce the birth of a rival organization.
He said next week is about 1,000 people, most of them not chiefs, making their way to the Saskatchewan First Nation to attend the biggest traditional gathering on aboriginal rights the Prairies have witnessed in decades.
The gathering is a half-hour drive north of Lloydminster and hundreds of kilometres away from the AFN's annual general meeting being held at the same time in Whitehorse.
And while some Manitoba chiefs, notably Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak leader David Harper, are scheduled to divide their time between both the AFN and the treaty gathering, Nepinak and almost all the southern Manitoba chiefs will stay in Onion Lake.
Manitoba Southern Chiefs Organization leader Murray Clearsky left July 4, leading 29 Ojibwa and Dakota riders on horseback along the Yellowquill Highway. Others, including young aboriginal people who helped Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger protest last winter in Ottawa, are walking to Onion Lake.
Into that volatile political mix, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs issued a clarion call Wednesday directed to the AFN: hands off the treaties.
"Treaties between the First Nations and the Crown are distinct and First Nations have not delegated their sovereignty... to the Assembly of First Nations," the AMC said in a statement from The Pas.
Chiefs had been meeting this week at the Opaskwayak Cree Nation for annual meetings in the lead-up to the Onion Lake gathering.
During a phone interview from The Pas, Nepinak said he wasn't going to "sugar-coat" treaty talk.
Already on the record as saying he'd like to do away with the Indian Act, the Manitoba leader offered a comment on what he sees as a reduced role for the AFN in the future.
"I think the AFN needs to be maintained in the interim, to do the policy work it's doing now," he said. But he sees no real role for the national group to lead talks with Ottawa on pressing political issues.
He did not say how he and his supporters hope to achieve their goals, but for now, he said his statements are focused on the goal, not the strategy.
In order to wrest out equity-sharing agreements around resources, with deals that will get First Nations out from under federal control, First Nations need to hammer home treaty obligations that have already been upheld by the courts but not recognized federally or effectively pushed forward by the AFN, Nepinak said.
"We don't want our treaties folded into political discussions... behind closed doors or into (agreements) with policies or comprehensive claims processes," Nepinak said.
Wednesday's statement from Manitoba was in response to reports the AFN is setting up a chiefs' task force on treaties to lead talks with Ottawa.
National Chief Shawn Atleo has yet to comment on the Manitoba moves and Nepinak, although he is a provincial leader, offered a olive branch of sorts, suggesting equality between the two. They "have not talked together as much as they maybe should have in recent months. I have great respect for Shawn. I still consider him an ally," Nepinak said.
Interestingly, a separate statement issued from Onion Lake this week foreshadows the direction of next week's gathering as well as Nepinak's statements.
"We are not competing with the Assembly of First Nations. The transition into a treaty-based relationship with the federal government... is not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, there will be a need to keep the old Indian Affairs machinery working and the AFN can do that," said Onion Lake Chief Wallace Fox.