Overlapping meetings to test First Nations leaders

All eyes will be on First Nations leaders this week as overlapping meetings of the Assembly of First Nations and the National Treaty Gathering promise to test the existing relationship among chiefs.

Treaty implementation, comprehensive claims, education will be front and centre

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, was scheduled to make a presentation on Monday advocating for an alternative to the Assembly of First Nations. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

All eyes will be on First Nations leaders this week as overlapping meetings of the Assembly of First Nations and the National Treaty Gathering promise to test the existing relationship among chiefs.

The Assembly of First Nations is holding its annual meeting in Whitehorse, Yukon beginning Tuesday. A separate group of chiefs began holding the National Treaty Gathering on Sunday at Onion Lake, Sask.

While concurrent meetings may force some First Nations leaders to choose one meeting over the other, the Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) told CBC News in a telephone interview on Monday, he will be attending both meetings.

Perry Bellegarde, who will be at the National Treaty Gathering on Tuesday and the AFN annual meeting on Wednesday, said "they are both important meetings."

Treaty implementation and comprehensive claims will be on the agenda at both meetings.

Bellegarde, who is also a regional vice-chief for the AFN, called on First Nations leaders to stay united in their quest for solutions to the challenges that face them.

"We gotta resist everything from being the source of diviseness amongst ourselves, because when we stand shoulder to shoulder we're strengthened in our solidarity. United we are stronger."

Bellegarde said his presentation at Tuesday's gathering at Onion Lake will include the idea of restructuring the AFN by treaty territory.

"That doesn't mean breaking up the national organization. It means re-aligning and re-structuring so it becomes more focused. And that's a possibility," Bellegarde said.  

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, was scheduled to make a presentation to the group in Saskatchewan on Monday advocating for an alternative to the AFN.

Nepinak told CBC News at the end of June that he would make a pitch in favour of a new group called the National Treaty Alliance because there's been too much rhetoric and not enough action on First Nations issues.

Chief Delbert Wapass, of Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, also told CBC News in June, "If the AFN is not stepping up and defending our rights, we have to."

'All hands on deck' required, Atleo says

National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo, in a telephone interview with CBC News on Friday, downplayed the politics behind a push by some chiefs for a breakaway organization rivalling the AFN.

"My role is not to negotiate for First Nations, and not to be between First Nations and government, but to push government… to go to the table."

Atleo said there was enough work to go around and that First Nations ought to feel empowered to drive their own solutions in their own regions.

"This is an all hands on deck effort that's required and it not need be received as something that is divisive," Atleo said.

"The way I feel and see this is part of that increased energy that's occurring right across the country, recognizing that the current status quo doesn't work."

A joint senior oversight committee was struck after Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to high-level talks with First Nations following a Jan. 11 meeting with Atleo and other First Nations chiefs.

Bellegarde from Saskatchewan and British Columbia Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould have been leading the group's work on treaty implementation and comprehensive claims.

Atleo met with Harper again on June 20 where he hand-delivered a letter from Bellegarde asking for clarity on the government's commitment to treaty implementation and reassurance that a senior oversight committee had a mandate to deal with the issue.

Bellegarde told CBC News that while he has since received a letter from officials in the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development requesting a meeting to discuss the letter, Bellegarde told them until he receives a formal response from the prime minister it would be "premature" to meet.

Atleo's opening address on Tuesday and a subsequent panel of chiefs will discuss ways of moving beyond the Indian Act.

That discussion will be followed by a presentation by former Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice on "Canada's imperative to support First Nations sustainability and growth."

Prentice's address will be followed by a panel that will include former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae who is now the chief negotiator for Matawa First Nations in their ongoing discussions with the Ontario government about the development of the Ring of Fire.

Tuesday's agenda will close with a panel discussion on First Nations approaches to First Nations education.

"The solutions don't lie in a unilaterally-developed approach on the part of the government. They need to work with First Nations to implement the right to education," Atleo said.

A 'blueprint' for First Nations education

After months of consultation, the government of Canada announced on Friday that it has started to draft proposed legislation that would create a framework within which "First Nations could exercise First Nations control over First Nations education," to be introduced in Parliament this coming fall.

The department of aboriginal affairs published a blueprint for legislation that sets out how a new approach to education can help close the gaps between First Nations students — the youngest and fastest growing demographic group in the country —and other students.

The paper titled 'Developing A First Nation Education Act: A Blueprint for Legislation' follows largely on the work of the 2012 National Panel on First Nation  Elementary and Secondary Education, as well as other consultations.

The proposed legislation would have First Nations design their own approach to legislation as long as minimum standards were met.

Minimum standards would "help ensure that students receive a quality education that allows them to move between First Nations and provincial schools and  school systems without academic penalty."

The proposed Act would also "recognize historic treaties and current modern land claims."

While the federal government heard that "current inadequacies in the system are, at least in part, due to a lack of funding," it remains unclear how much funding would be allocated for First Nations education under a First Nation Education Act.

NDP MP's Romeo Saganash and Jean Crowder are expected to attend the AFN's annual meeting.

Both meetings of the AFN and the National Treaty Gathering run until July 18.