Harper promises to take direct interest in First Nations files

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence (C) pauses after making a statement on Victoria Island before the start of a meeting between chiefs and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2013.

Credits: REUTERS


OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised he and his top officials will take a more direct interest in First Nations issues, but First Nations leaders remain deeply divided over how they should deal with the federal government.

Harper met with First Nations leaders for more than four hours on Friday afternoon despite attempts by some First Nations chiefs, including protesting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, to prevent that meeting from taking place.

Spence refused to attend the meeting with Harper unless Gov. Gen. David Johnston was there. Johnston, for his part, hosted a ceremonial meeting with First Nations leaders at his official residence at Rideau Hall after the meeting with Harper had concluded.

Spence emerged from the teepee near Parliament Hill where she has been consuming nothing but fish broth, water and tea since mid-December to attend the meeting with Johnston at Rideau Hall.

The Rideau Hall meeting, like the meeting between the Harper and First Nations leaders, was closed to the media.
First Nations communities were represented at the afternoon meeting with Harper by Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and 20 other chiefs.

The PMO said that while the two sides did not agree on every item discussed, Harper agreed to a new "high-level dialogue" on the Crown-First Nations treaty relationship and land claims; to "enhanced oversight" from his office on First Nations files; and committed to meeting again with Atleo in "the coming weeks."

"I think we achieved quite a bit today and of course our objective is to continue making progress in terms of working with aboriginal leadership," Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said.

The Harper-First Nations meeting took place while as many as 3,000 demonstrators marched on Parliament Hill in protest after paying a visit to Spence's camp at Victoria Island.

Some chiefs have suggested that Atleo's future as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations could now be in jeopardy for failing to adhere to the demands of many chiefs that he boycott the meeting with Harper.

"The AFN was set up to represent the decisions of the chiefs," Pam Palmater said Thursday evening. Palmater, a Ryerson University professor, ran unsuccessfully against Atleo last summer and has sharply criticized him for being too close to the Harper government.

"If the AFN decided to go to that meeting against the will and decision of the chiefs, then the AFN would no longer be a valid and representative organization of the chiefs. That's as simple as it gets."


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