Canada's new Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett held hands, laughed and danced with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day at a First Nations education meeting on Tuesday in Thunder Bay, Ont. 

Gord Peters, Isadore Day, Carolyn Bennett

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (right) joins hands with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day for a round of hokey-pokey at the First Nations education symposium in Thunder Bay. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Aboriginal education experts from across the province are gathered in Thunder Bay this week to develop a plan for First Nations education in Ontario.

Day said he invited Bennett to the conference on the day she was sworn in. The pair sat side-by-side, sharing notes and conversation before the meeting and then held hands and danced the hokey-pokey as part of an opening ice-breaker.

"She is here as the new minister, but I can tell you from my gut and from my heart of hearts that Carolyn is here as a friend," Day said in his opening remarks.

First Nations helped get the Liberals elected and have high hopes for what the new government will mean, he said.

Minister of Reconciliation

"We've spent the last decade in darkness under a Conservative regime," Day said. "What we've been doing is getting our plans prepared. We eventually understood that we would see a new day and essentially what we're looking at here now is that opportunity."

Bennett said that "as Minister of Reconciliation" the starting point for every aspect of her mandate is building relationships.

"These people have been thinking about these things for a very long time," Bennett said. "It's time we listened and were able to help them do what they know needs to be done."

But money may run short for all that needs to be done, Bennett admitted.

There is some funding that went unspent after the Conservatives "fight" over the First Nations Education Act, she said, "but that won't be enough."

'Hopes and dreams'

"If all the money isn't here right now we can build the hopes and dreams around a real mature relationship that allows the people who know about these things to build a system over time," Bennett said.

Paul Martin

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin says if First Nations develop a solid plan, 'every educator in the land' will get behind it. (Jody Porter/CBC)

In the key note address at the conference former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin talked about the positive results he has seen from his charitable initiative that helps bring funding for First Nations schools up to the provincial standard.

Federal funding for schools on reserve is 30 to 50 per cent less than the amount provinces spend on schools in towns and cities, he said.

"The Canadian government is going to have to play its role," Martin said. "And I can't tell you, after I've been the Minister of Finance and having Carolyn Bennett when she was a another minister come to me for money, what a pleasure it's going to be to go to [Bennett] for money."

Martin, perhaps more than most, knows the limits of the federal budget. His address was a call to action for Indigenous educators to develop a strategy to push those limits.

"If you are strong and united behind the kind of plan that you want and you can get Carolyn Bennett and the federal government behind you, they will be there," Martin said. 

"It will mean every single educator in the land is saying that this is the First Nations' plan and it makes sense," he said. "Who in god's name is going to be able to withstand that?"