First Nations get broad promises on Indian Act, development

A day-long gathering between First Nations chiefs and the Crown has led to broad commitments to encourage economic development and eliminate barriers to self-determination.

Government commits to eliminate barriers to self-government

The government is taking a small step toward First Nations governance, promising to remove barriers to self-determination and introduce new mechanisms to update the Indian Act.

But while they also agreed on developing economic opportunities for First Nations, there was nothing in the final statement about resource sharing or specific commitments to increase funding for education and other areas the chiefs have said are lacking.

Provincial leaders weren't at the meeting, making it hard to talk about resource sharing as an element of economic development. 

After a day of meetings billed as a historic gathering of the Crown and First Nations chiefs, the federal government and Assembly of First Nations released a statement saying they've agreed on a number of steps to take.

They also agreed to release a progress report Jan. 24, 2013.

The AFN and the government said they would look to "education and opportunity" to improve success among First Nations and create conditions to speed up economic development.

They also said they would take away barriers to self-government, find common ground on treaty implementation and work together on recommendations from a report to be released on First Nations kindergarten to Grade 12 education.

No plan to repeal Indian Act

National Chief Shawn Atleo, centre, walks with Gov. Gen. David Johnston, left, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the opening ceremonies of the Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The chiefs and the federal government disagreed Tuesday over what should be done with the Indian Act, the law that governs their relationship.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the gathering that the act is too entrenched to get rid of entirely, and the government won't repeal or unilaterally rewrite the act.

"After 136 years, that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole," Harper said.

But there are real and practical ways to change the act, or introduce measures outside the act,he said at a one-day gathering of government and First Nations chiefs in Ottawa, with consultation between the government, the provinces and First Nations communities.

"The incentives buried in the Indian Act self-evidently lead to outcomes that we all deplore," he said.

Crown and chiefs looking to 'reset'

Harper adopted language the chiefs themselves have used, saying there's never been a better moment "to reset the relationship."

But they were politely split on what should happen to the Indian Act, which Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo called a "complete abrogation of the partnership between respectful nations."

"Like a rock that sits in the middle of that road ... a boulder that blocks the path of collaboration — remains, as we've been saying here, the Indian Act — along with the age-old structures and policies that administer it and steadfastly resist change."

Atleo said there will be people who look at Tuesday's gathering skeptically, not expecting any real change to come of it, and he said he understands that.

"It would be disrespectful of the suffering of our peoples …if I did not." But, "first we must repair, as has already been said here, the trust that has been broken. To rebuild the partnership, we must rebuild the trust on which it must be based."

At the closing press conference, Atleo said the event was a first step, but an important first step, and must become the normal way of doing business together.

He also pointed to the agreement that the Indian Act needs some kind of change.

"Today we also both identified the Indian Act as being an obstacle," he said, pointing to "the shared notion that we can and must arrive at a day where the Indian Act is simply an obsolete relic of the past."

Earlier in the day, Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief for British Columbia, said the time has come for legislation recognizing First Nations as self-governing.

"This will get at the roots of the Indian Act tree. We need core governance reform. When we do, the Indian Act tree will topple over. No gaping hole, Mr. Prime Minister, but strong and self-determining First Nations," she said.

Former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi echoed Wilson-Raybould's words.

"When you become a chief, you sure learn that even though you want to remain an Indian, the Indian Act is in the way. It stands in the way of economic progress, it stands in the way of our own self-determination as a people," he said.

"It stands in the way of even defining who we are as a people and who can belong to our nations. It's not just a big hole. It's an obstacle."

It wasn't clear how long Harper would stay, with a trip to World Economic Forum meetings in Switzerland planned for Wednesday, but he spent the day meeting with the chiefs, circulating through the plenary sessions. Twelve cabinet ministers and a number of MPs were also at the meetings with hundreds of chiefs from across the country.

Agree on need to rebuild trust

There was talk about rebuilding trust from both the government and First Nations chiefs, but it wasn't immediately clear what Tuesday's meeting would change.

Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he was hoping for more substance in Harper's speech and had been anticipating an announcement of more funding for education.

Children on reserves get less per-capita funding for education than those living off reserves.

But Arlen Dumas, a chief from the Matshias Cree Nation in Manitoba, said that by going to the event Harper has acknowledged there are issues to collaborate on.


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The First Nations Chiefs of Ontario organized a day of action to coincide with the gathering. In Ottawa, an estimated crowd of 100 marched with signs and drums to Parliament Hill, asking the government to honour their treaties and show more respect for First Nations people.

Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel and Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus spoke to the crowd before it moved on to demonstrate at the official meeting site on Sussex Drive Tuesday afternoon.

Earlier Tuesday, the group held a sunrise ceremony at Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, lighting a sacred fire to burn throughout the day in support of First Nations leadership.

Algonquins from the Barriere Lake First Nation, north of Ottawa in West Quebec, held their own protest Tuesday at the gathering site, which they consider unceded Algonquin territory. This First Nation is upset the federal government will not recognize its customary chief and council or honour a 1991 joint management agreement for its land.

Traditional ceremony opened event

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Harper and Atleo ceremonially launched the sessions on how to improve the relationship between the Crown and First Nations people, as well as how to strengthen First Nations economies.

A drumming circle accompanied the procession for the grand entry, led by a Canadian flag and the Assembly of First Nations flag. An elder smudged the leaders with sweet grass and a feather before a traditional gift exchange.

Atleo presented Johnston with a Covenant Chain belt to represent one of the earliest treaties between the Crown and First Nations peoples.

The belt shows that the Crown is linked by a chain to the First Nations peoples of this land, according to the AFN. The three links of the chain represent a covenant of friendship, good minds and the peace, and is made of silver symbolizing that the relationship will be polished from time to time to keep it from tarnishing.

Johnston gave Atleo a reproduction of a painting of the Battle of Queenston Heights, which he said depicts the co-operation of aboriginal and non-aboriginal soldiers in 1812.

The gathering was planned before northern Ontario's Attawapiskat made international news over living conditions on the reserve, but the date was set while Canadians were still seeing images of families living in trailers and tents in frigid weather.

Amid desperate calls for change for aboriginal families across the country came the Harper government's pledge to also do more to strengthen financial accountability on reserves, which receive billions annually in federal funding.

The chiefs are looking for everything from more funding to take care of education and water problems on reserves, to self-governance and land claims resolution.

Many of the chiefs say they're also looking for future meetings with Harper.

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With files from The Canadian Press