Posted: Jan 10, 2013 9:27 AM CST
Last Updated: Jan 10, 2013 6:57 PM CST
A meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations chiefs is in question amid demands that the Governor General be present at the meeting.
Questions over who will attend the meeting — and new demands about where it should be held — created confusion on the eve of the gathering called to discuss concerns about the relationship between the federal government and First Nations.
Grand Chief Stan Louttit, of the Mushkegowuk territory that includes Attawapiskat First Nation, told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that the chiefs were united in the belief that the meeting would be off unless both Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston were in attendance.
“That’s what the chiefs debated this afternoon,” Louttit told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon. “And there is unanimity on the floor from our meeting at the conference centre that we want both the Governor General and the prime minister at our meeting tomorrow.”
However, Solomon later reported via Twitter that CBC News was hearing from the Assembly of First Nations that the meeting is on, despite Louttit’s remarks.
“There’s clearly a lot of division,” Solomon said.
Manitoba chiefs said at a late Thursday news conference at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa that they would not attend Friday’s meeting unless it was moved to the hotel.
“Unfortunately, the prime minister has been very dictatorial and unrelenting in his position to control and set the agenda for this meeting,” the chiefs said in a release.
Meanwhile, Harper’s director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, said the government will stick with the plan for Harper to attend the working meeting at his office, and for the Governor General to host a separate ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall Friday evening.
Johnston had said that he wouldn’t attend a working meeting on public policy, despite demands by some First Nations leaders, including Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, that he be there in his role as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
A First Nations source told CBC News that Atleo, Bellegarde and Wilson-Raybould met with Harper’s staff last night to press for Johnston’s attendance.
Spence has limited her food intake for the past month, consuming only herbal tea and fish broth since Dec. 11. She says she will continue her protest until the meeting happens and said she wouldn’t stop unless Johnston was at the meeting.
Spence’s fast may continue
It’s not clear yet whether a ceremonial meeting will meet those demands. Spence’s spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, first told CBC News that the meeting with Johnston was a positive step, but then said if he isn’t at the same meeting as Harper then it would be a failure.
Spence has maintained Harper, Johnston, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and First Nations leaders must be in the same room, having discussions together. Louttit said on Power & Politics that Spence won’t be attending.
McGuinty has an unrelated press conference in Toronto Friday morning and then leaves for a trade mission to China.
The working meeting is to be held at Langevin Block, the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, and is closed to media, a spokeswoman for Harper said in an email.
The meeting will start at 1 p.m. ET with remarks by Harper and Atleo, with a plenary session from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. to discuss the treaty relationship, aboriginal rights and economic development.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan and Treasury Board president Tony Clement will be at the plenary sessions.
Harper and Atleo will “engage in a dialogue” about the outcomes of the plenary session from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
‘Poverty is killing First Nations people’
Earlier Thursday, the country’s top chief said poverty is killing First Nations people, as he laid out goals for the meeting with the Harper.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the AFN has heard the voices of Idle No More activists calling for action.
“We are absolute in our convictions and in our determination to achieve our rights,” he said.
Referring to the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women, Atleo’s voice caught as he recalled going with a family to a morgue after a 16-year-old girl was killed.
“This is what our people are saying. That poverty is killing our people. That the history of colonization and unilateral action on the part of governments will stop now,” he said.
Atleo, along with regional chiefs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Perry Bellegarde, laid out a number of specific requests, including treaty implementation, treaty enforcement and a new financial relationship with the Crown. Bellegarde says one funding formula is 19 years old and hasn’t kept up with either inflation or the total First Nations population.
Wilson-Raybould and Bellegarde both pointed to the need for a new division within the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council office to manage the policy changes they’re asking for.
“The second point we talked about is, again, lands and resources being unilaterally developed without our involvement. That creates poverty. That’s not good for our country. We need to deal with that,” Bellegarde said, recommending Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver should be working on that file with the AFN.
‘Poor in our own homelands’
The chiefs also mentioned disputes over changes to environmental legislation the Conservative government made in its two omnibus budget implementation bills in 2012.
“Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands. But that’s what we see,” Bellegarde said.
Wilson-Raybould said the Indian Act needs to be fundamentally changed.
“Imposed solutions will not work,” she said. “We have the solutions right across the country in terms of developing and extricating ourselves from the Indian Act.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was to meet with 20 national and regional First Nations chiefs Thursday night at Stornoway, the residence of the Opposition leader. Spence will not be at that meeting.
The meeting comes after nearly two months of Idle No More protests by First Nations people, as well as Spence’s month-long hunger strike.
‘Nothing left to lose’
First Nations people in Canada have “nothing left to lose,” the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told reporters Thursday morning, pointing to the problems with lack of housing, unsafe drinking water and poor health in the community.
Derek Nepinak said the Idle No More movement has enough people to “bring the Canadian economy to its knees.”
“It can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources in our ancestral territories. 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,” Nepinak said.
The Manitoba chiefs distributed a list of 10 treaty principles in advance, affirming their sovereignty and that Canada “has an ongoing obligation to fulfil the treaty according to the spirit and intent.”
The variety of First Nations stakeholder groups have brought mixed messages on what they’re seeking from Friday’s meeting.
Representatives from Idle No More have distanced themselves from the chiefs. The grassroots movement is also calling on the AFN to walk out of the meeting with Harper.
With files from CBC’s Laura Payton