The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) — who persisted in meeting with the prime minister despite opposition from hunger-striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, other prominent aboriginal chiefs, and Idle No More protesters — emerged from Friday's meeting determined in his resolve to improve the plight of Canada's First Nations.
In an interview after his meeting with the prime minister, Shawn Atleo told on CBC Radio's The House that Stephen Harper responded to the "urgency" of the moment when he committed to "prime ministerial oversight to ensure that privy council is involved and admitted, recognized that political oversight was necessary for there to be real change in the relationship between First Nations and Canada."
A delegation of chiefs lead by Atleo presented Harper with a list of eight points requiring "immediate" action.
The AFN came up with that list after meeting with First Nations leaders in strategy sessions held in the lead-up to Friday's working meeting with the prime minister.
A commitment to working on treaty relationships, resolution of land claims, and resource revenue sharing were listed as the top three issues on that list.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, addressing reporters on Parliament Hill, said the prime minister had agreed to:
- High-level dialogue on treaty relationships and comprehensive land claims.
- Enhanced oversight from PMO and Privy Council.
- Holding further meetings with the head of the AFN.
Atleo told host Evan Solomon "the prime minister recognized that we have a shared objective of achieving resource revenue sharing, and that the provinces are going to have to play a role in that."
"In fact,[the prime minister] responded to all eight points."
"It was an opportunity where the prime minister stayed for the entire meeting which wasn't expected," said Atleo, and added that "the urgency of this moment requires for us to get on with that work, and [the prime minister] committed to doing that."
In a separate interview also airing Saturday on The House, Greg Rickford, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, said the federal government and First Nations "found common ground."
Rickford described the working meeting as "polite, respectful and substantive."
Harper committed to meeting Atleo within two weeks
With the toughest work still ahead, Atleo said the prime minister committed to meeting with him in the "coming days and weeks."
"Treaty leaders themselves will have the opportunity to explore how to implement this mandate that the prime minister is expressing so we can get on — treaty by treaty, nation-to-nation — with treaty implementation to transform the lives of our people and support lifting them out of poverty," said Atleo.
But the commitment to revisit treaties and speed up talks for land claims means negotiations between the government and individual regions on incredibly complicated topics involving historical documents, oral tradition and complex legal standards.
In addition to that, chiefs are questioning the power of the AFN as well as Atleo's mandate. Citizens are questioning the power of their chiefs and the government. And the existing power structure is based on the Indian Act — legislation that all sides recognize as abusive, outdated and problematic.
For the chiefs, treaty implementation has long been the holy grail. In their view, modern treaties implemented in a fair fashion would better define First Nation control over land use, the environment, their own finances, education and health care, and a sustainable fiscal arrangement with Ottawa. Treaty implementation is the path to self-government and self-respect.
Atleo credits Idle No More for 'forcing' dialogue
When asked about the divisions that emerged among First Nations including calls from aboriginal leaders challenging his leadership, Atleo conceded that "to a large extent" the way the AFN is structured "does not reflect the original nations that we come from."
"This construct reflects an Indian Act that was part of the discussion that First Nations are saying we need to move beyond... I think we really [have to] reflect on our organization and perhaps re-consider how it is that we do our work, because we are so diverse," said Atleo.
The national chief credited the grassroots movement Idle No More for "forcing" First Nations and the federal government "to take heed at this moment."
'I think we really [have to] reflect on our organization and perhaps re-consider how it is that we do our work, because we are so diverse' —National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo
"Their voices will not be silenced," said Atleo.
Since Friday's meeting, Spence has vowed to continue her hunger strike until the prime minister and Governor General meet with First Nations together, in one room.
On Saturday, Spence issued a written statement saying her fate rested in the hands of Harper and David Johnston.
"They both have the decision to stop this hunger strike," said Spence.
Aboriginal chiefs and Idle No More protesters have said Canadians can expect border and rail blockades on Jan. 16 and a global "Day of Action" on Jan. 28.
In an interview with CBC's The National on Sunday, the co-founder of the Idle No More movement, Sylvia McAdam, said she does not support the national blockades scheduled for next Wednesday.
"My concern would be that the blockades would create some measure of violence and the vision of Idle No More has always been one of peace and creating allies," McAdam said from North Battleford, Sask.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs issued a press release on Sunday to clarify remarks made earlier in the week by Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
"Nepinak has never condoned violence of any kind in any of his statements, but rather is promoting peaceful protests called for by citizens in First Nations communities across Manitoba," said the written statement.
Last Thursday, Nepinak told reporters gathered for a press conference in Ottawa that the Idle No More movement has enough people to "bring the Canadian economy to its knees."
"It can stop Prime Minister Harper's resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources in our ancestral territories. We have the warriors that are standing up now that are willing to go that far. So we're not here to make requests. We're here to demand attention and to demand an end to 140 years of colonial rule," Nepinak said.