Atleo, Valcourt at odds over First Nations progress

There's been "no real change" in the federal government's approach to First Nations issues, says the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, five years after the residential schools apology.

AFN national chief warns government's 'unilateral' approach risks increased confrontation

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo says the 'unilateral' approach of the Harper government to First Nations issues risks greater confrontation with aboriginal people. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

There's been "no real change" in the federal government's approach to First Nations issues, says the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, five years after the residential schools apology.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Shawn Atleo described the Harper government's approach to decision-making as "top-down, unilateral, government-knows-best," saying that "in my personal reflection, since the apology, there has really been no real change in the approach."

Atleo warned of the potential for further confrontation, the like of which has not been seen since the crises of the 1990s.

"Without a shift in the pattern of the relationship, we're going to continue to see a cycle of conflict that's not just more recent. It goes back to the days of the Oka crisis, of Gustafsen Lake, of Burnt Church, of a gap that seems to continue to deepen between First Nations and Canada," Atleo said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says the federal government is making 'serious investments' in First Nations' reserves, while shifting some funding from advocacy groups. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This week also marked five years since the federal government's apology, and five months since Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to "high-level" treaty talks following a working meeting with Atleo and a delegation of First Nations leaders last Jan. 11.

Atleo said the words spoken by the prime minister have to be met with action that includes "time frames and targets for treaty implementation of major important priorities like education."

In a separate interview on The House, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt acknowledged the frustration expressed by First Nations while defending the federal government's handling of the issue.

"Of course there is impatience out there but there is also a lot of realization that progress is being made and accomplished," Valcourt said.

'Serious investment'

Valcourt pointed to the federal government's nearly $3-billion investment into infrastructure for safe drinking water on reserves as one example of the Harper government's commitment to improving the lives of First Nations people.

"This is not peanuts, this is a serious investment which I think and suggest and attests to our resolve to work with First Nations in order not only to alleviate but ensure that they have access to safe drinking water regardless of where they live," Valcourt said.

Two bills that will impact First Nations passed the final reading in the the House of Commons this week and are now on their way to becoming law.

However, Atleo said the AFN opposed Bill S-2, the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, and Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, because the federal government did not consult with First Nations in drafting the legislation.

"In some respects it seems that the government is really more interested in covering its own liabilities than working with First Nations on delivering real solutions," Atleo said. "It's the imposition of rules that don't offer a way to resolve the core issues."

The minister vehemently denied that accusation, calling Atleo's basis for opposing the two bills "completely out of sync with the reality."

Valcourt said the bill on matrimonial rights will "correct the unacceptable gap of rights in Canada where women, couples living on reserves with children, are deprived of the same rights and protections afforded to other Canadians simply because of where they live."

The minister said the bill was welcomed by First Nations community members, Amnesty International, the United Nations, women's organizations, parliamentary committees and Manitoba's NDP government.

According to Valcourt, the federal government's agenda with respect to First Nations "was not pulled out of thin air."

"This is an agenda that has been agreed upon with the First Nations leadership," Valcourt said.

Cuts 'contradict' claims, Atleo says

In turn, Atleo pointed to the lack of progress on First Nations education and recent cuts to Aboriginal Representative Organizations as examples of the disconnect between what the Harper government says and does.

"It's alarming that these cuts really in essence contradict what we're hearing are our government's commitment to First Nations," Atleo said, adding that the cuts "have the potential to undermine progress."

"Some of the organizations impacted may be delivering direct services on health, safe drinking water, infrastructure. And we're doing an analysis, in standing with First Nations, to make sure that the cuts don't impact the safety and security of First Nations families," Atleo said.

Valcourt defended the cuts as a "shift" in the way the federal government will fund projects going forward, saying the changes would not impact funding for essential services in communities.

"I will not apologize for shifting scarce resources to essential needs. We are shifting, yes indeed, money from advocacy groups to basic essential needs on reserves."

"I will not apologize for wanting to spend more on housing, for child and family services, for water and sewer, for infrastructure and education," Valcourt said.

This week, the Harper government made good on a budget promise, putting $241-million over five years into training programs for young aboriginal people on income assistance.

At the time of the budget, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair denounced the "workfare" program as "insulting" and "paternalistic."

Despite the initial criticism, the program appears to be receiving a positive response on reserves.

Atleo acknowledged that First Nations leaders in provinces such as Saskatchewan had been calling for what they refer to as "active measures" to invest in young people so they can take advantage of opportunities in local areas.

Neither Atleo nor Valcourt could say when the next meeting with the prime minister would take place.