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Historic Crown–First Nations Gathering Yields Plan, Hopes for Concrete Action

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A historic daylong meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the country’s First Nations leaders ended with a detailed plan that would move the country’s relationship with its aboriginal population forward.

Released jointly by Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the plan lays out concrete steps to be taken by the parties involved to improve the lot of aboriginals on and off reserve.

Poverty, education shortcomings, dilapidated housing and child welfare were all on the table in what was deemed a historic gathering. Harper, after earning censure for planning to cut out right after his morning speech, rearranged his schedule and stayed until the end, filing out with the chiefs after the closing prayer. Later that evening he flew to Switzerland for the Davos meeting.

Many aboriginals were underwhelmed with his speech, which advocated keeping the Indian Act—which Atleo wants to scrap outright—and working around its limitations.

“To be sure, our Government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act: After 136 years, that tree has deep roots, blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole,” Harper said. “However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our Government, the provinces, and First Nations leadership and communities, ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.”

Atleo, on the other hand, was at the opposite extreme.

“It is well past time that we began to undo the damage that Act has inflicted on our peoples, and to our partnership,” he said. “For from it grew the reserve system, the tragedy of residential schools and offensive prohibitions on our cultural and spiritual practices, a breach of faith that has devastated families and communities ever since. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples concluded over 15 years ago, this legislation has utterly failed our people—and failed Canada.”

He also imbued the proceedings with a sense of urgency, stating over and over that a rekindling of the equal partnership between First Nations and Canada, which helped create the country in the first place, “cannot wait.”

Our people “insist that we stop lurching from crisis to crisis,” he said. “They ask us to begin anew, to re-build understanding and trust as the way forward.”

The underlying themes to renewing the relationship hinge on starting to create a single, multi-year financial arrangement between the Canadian government and First Nations, replacing the current year-by-year, line-item approach “for First Nations with high-performing governance systems.”

Improving financial accountability provisions and practices for all parties involved, from First Natins to Canadian officials, all of it with the ultimate goal of rendering First Nations self-sufficient financially.

Other plan components include removing the barriers to self-government for First Nations incrementally.

“The Indian Act cannot be replaced overnight, but through the use of existing tools and the development of new mechanisms, both parties can create the conditions to enable sustainable and successful First Nations,” the plan said.

The third cornerstone concerns resolving land claims and implementing treaties, the fourth speaks to education reform and the fifth outlines plans for an economic development task force to be created that will study ways to unlock First Nations’ economic potential. The group will report back in a year with concrete recommendations.