High-level treaty talks between the Assembly of First Nations and senior government officials have ended in "failure" less than a year after a delegation of First Nations leaders met with the prime minister during the height of Idle No More protests, says the chief appointed to lead the talks.
Forming a senior oversight committee to discuss treaty issues was a key promise flowing from the meeting with the prime minister — but the AFN held no official meetings with the committee despite receiving a budget of $400,000 from the federal government, Chief Perry Bellegarde, the chair of the committee, said Friday.
"It was a failure," Bellegarde told Rosemary Barton, guest host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Friday.
A group of national chiefs ordered the AFN last month to end the work of the committee looking into treaties, laying bare a rift first exposed one year ago when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak were shut out of the meeting with Harper. The meeting was held as Chief Spence was in the midst of a six-week self-described hunger strike.
The two were among a group of chiefs who said they were opposed to the idea of having the AFN represent them where treaty negotiations were involved.
But the AFN has consistently said it is not negotiating on behalf of Treaty Nations, simply facilitating the discussions between treaty chiefs and the government.
Bellegarde said just because the senior oversight committee on treaties was a failure it doesn't mean they can't try again.
"You can't just stop talks without having any alternatives, so we have to open those doors again," Bellegarde said.
The $400,000 received from the federal government was primarily used to pay for research, travel, a handful of forums on treaties organized in different regions, as well as the salary and benefits of one staff at the AFN, among other items, a spokesperson for the national organization told CBC News on Friday.
While Bellegarde could not say if all the money had been spent, he said it was "utilized in an effective way."
Chiefs end treaty talks
The chiefs ordered the AFN to abandon the committee by passing a resolution presented by Chief Lynn Acoose from Sakimay First Nations in Saskatchewan during a special assembly of chiefs in December.
Acoose, in her draft resolution, said there had been "neither common consensus nor unanimous support regarding the AFN representing Treaty First Nations in discussions with Canada on treaties and their implementation."
The resolution that passed directed the AFN and Bellegarde to end the meetings with Ottawa until treaty chiefs have obtained the consent of members to move forward.
It was seconded by Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, and passed with the objection of two national chiefs and the abstention of 12 others.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has already started to meet with representatives of treaty organizations on a one-on-one basis, CBC News has learned.
"Our government has been working to increase the dialogue on treaty relationships and we will continue doing so in a manner that respects the rights and autonomy of each Treaty First Nation, including on a one-on-one basis, if so is their preference," Valcourt told CBC News in a written statement last week.
If a treaty chief wants to negotiate directly with the government "that's their right," Bellegarde told CBC News in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Meetings doomed from start
While the committee on treaties never met, a group of national chiefs did get together with senior government officials on Nov. 27 to get see if they could get more information about the committee's mandate.
Bellegarde, who also speaks on behalf of Treaty Four, of which Acoose is a member, conceded that the idea of a senior oversight committee made up of representatives from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs never took off.
"We've never embraced the senior oversight committee concept for treaties because we disagreed, and we weren't clear on their terms of reference, authority and mandate," Bellegarde said Thursday.
Bellegarde wrote a letter to Harper last June expressing those concerns and asking for clarity.
"We just didn't want a team of bureaucrats coming together with no authority to make decisions," Bellegarde said Thursday.
Atleo hand-delivered Bellegarde's letter to the prime minister when the two met for 15 minutes on June 20.
In a letter to chiefs and councils dated the same day, Atleo said "the prime minister re-iterated commitments to ensure oversight and mandate including his office and the Privy Council to advance treaty implementation as well as reform of the comprehensive claims policy," Atleo wrote.
Atleo received a formal response from the prime minister on Aug. 12 but despite the formal reply, the committee's mandate "still was not clear," Bellegarde said Thursday.
He said some chiefs are now discussing the idea of having a national treaty commissioner responsible for implementing treaties. The person would be chosen jointly by the government and First Nations and report to the Crown.
Progress in other areas
The other senior oversight committee struck after the high-stakes meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders was tasked with reviewing the federal government's policy on comprehensive land claims.
It was led by Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief for British Columbia, and Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, who met with senior officials from the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs eight times over the past year.
As CBC News reported, the committee concluded its work on Dec. 6 and is recommending to Harper that the government update its policy on how it negotiates and resolves disputes over land claims.
Valcourt told CBC News in a written statement on Jan. 2 that the senior oversight committee on comprehensive claims "will provide advice to the government and First Nation stakeholders on options to renew, update or reform Canada’s comprehensive claims policy, including a broad range of reconciliation options."
"While this progress is important and will have a positive impact on First Nations, we will continue to build on it and sustain the momentum that is being created," Valcourt said.
"In the new year, we will continue to work with First Nations to make concrete progress on our shared priorities."
Outside of these two committees, some progress was also made on education reform.
In a conciliatory letter to Atleo in December, Valcourt said the government was willing to negotiate improvements to its plan to reform First Nations education and dropped a 2014 deadline for the legislation.
This month will also mark the second-year anniversary of the Crown – First Nations gathering that brought together the Governor General, the prime minister and members of his cabinet with the AFN and a delegation of chiefs.