Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs speaks to the media with other Manitoba Chiefs Jan 10, 2013 in Ottawa ON
Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
OTTAWA - Shortly after lunch on Friday, a group of First Nations leaders will gather at the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill for a four-hour working meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and some of his ministers.
It's a meeting that seemed, at several points this week, in peril of not even happening.
The goals and objectives of the meeting remain relatively vague, but all participants hope that by dinnertime Friday the relationship between the federal government and the country's First Nations leaders will be moving away from confrontation and towards the kind of co-operation sorely needed to improve the lives of those living in Canada's 631 First Nations communities.
On Thursday, the government was saying little, but First Nations leaders spent a great deal of time talking to reporters.
Some, like several chiefs from Manitoba, demanded no less than the repeal of the Harper government's budget legislation, bills C-45 and C-38, and said if Harper didn't agree to that request then Harper would be putting Canada's economy at risk of shutdown by Idle No More protests.
"We have the power," Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told reporters. "The Idle No More movement has the people and the numbers that can bring the Canadian economy to its knees. We have the warriors that are standing up now that are willing to go that far. So we're not here to make requests. We're here to demand attention and to demand an end to 140 years of colonial rule."
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), was about as angry but less confrontational. He spoke of how "fundamental transformation" of the relationship between First Nations and the federal government is required and how Friday's working meeting must be a first step along that path.
For one thing, Atleo and the AFN seem to agree that one of the useful outcomes of Friday's meeting would be a commitment to quickly find a way to build schools on the 200 First Nations reserves that don't have one. Another useful outcome would be a commitment to an ongoing process involving the prime minister or his senior officials to deal with the tremendously complex problems facing First Nations communities.
"The point we're making here now is to not let the complexity stop us from getting on with the work," Atleo said.
Both the government and First Nations leaders would like to see the Indian Act scrapped but no one is agreed on just how that should be done.
"The Indian Act is not an appropriate system of government for anybody. And it's not an appropriate system of government for our people," said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the AFN's regional chief for B.C. "Can we get rid of it overnight? No. This is where the hard work is."
But not every First Nation leader agrees with the path Atleo and AFN are about to follow.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence said Thursday that both Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston should be at the working meeting between Atleo and Harper. Johnston's presence is crucial, Spence maintains, because he is Canada's representative of the British Crown, which originally signed treaties with First Nations in the 18th century.
Harper, for his part, asked Johnston to meet with First Nations leaders separately, after the working meeting is concluded. But Johnston won't be at the working meeting.
That's not good enough for Spence and she vowed to continue her protest of consuming nothing but fish broth, water and tea until Johnston and Harper attend a meeting together.
She has many supporters among First Nations leaders for that position, including a Manitoba chief, David Harper, who referred to Spence as "our own Mother Teresa."
Atleo and Harper have four hours Friday to show that they can, in fact, set the Crown-First Nations relationship on a more productive path.