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Many Hopes for Long-Awaited Crown–First Nations Gathering

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As First Nations chiefs streamed into Ottawa over the weekend to finalize their agenda for the historic Crown–First Nations Gathering with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, chiefs were already clear on the basics.

“The meeting with Prime Minister Harper and First Nations leadership on January 24, 2012, should be used to re-establish a foundational relationship that has become entirely flawed,” the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians said in a media release. “The opportunity to restore an equitable and balanced relationship is the key to solving long-term issues such as housing, education, and health which now plague First Nation citizens.”

While many chiefs were optimistic, some were livid that their only face time with Harper was in a thrown-together seven-minute meeting on January 23. Moreover, as it turns out, he is only scheduled to stay at the actual daylong meeting on the 24th for the opening ceremonies, gift exchange and his 15-minute speech. After that he must attend to “international matters,” as CTV News reported, leaving government officials including some cabinet ministers behind to dig into the substance of the meeting.

On the face of it, that move did not seem to jibe with the First Nations’ stated priorities of resetting the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, of ensuring that First Nations concerns are being taken seriously, especially when it comes to consultation on issues pertaining to their land, and honoring treaties, the aggrieved First Nations leaders said.

"Seven minutes after several years. If that's what we're worth to Canada, so be it," said Cameron Alexis, who had traveled from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta, to CTV News.

Indeed, said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), government failure to fulfill its obligations could mean that all bets are off.

"We must do better. The honor of the Crown and the very integrity of Canada as a nation is at stake," said Phillip said in a statement from the British Columbia arm of the Assembly of First Nations. "Otherwise, an aboriginal uprising is inevitable."

About 400 chiefs have gathered, 97 of them from British Columbia, according to the UBCIC, and 22 from Alberta, Postmedia News reported. It is the first face-to-face meeting that Harper has held with First Nations since forming his government in 2005.

In contrast, President Barack Obama has held three tribal summits since winning office in 2008.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee alluded to the many “studies that point to the fact that we do need change,” he said in a statement, speaking for the Union of Ontario Indians. “Now, we have the answers. The solutions are there, already built into a lot of these processes. What we need is the political will to move on some of these initiatives."

Anishinabek Nation Southeast Regional J. R. Marsden emphasized economic development, while Peter Collins, Chief of Fort William First Nation as well as the Northern Superior Regional Chief for the Anishinabek Nation, spoke of the importance of keeping First Nations afloat with basic services while they get on their feet economically. Collins, whose First Nation recently settled a land claim, also called for streamlining the settlement.

The environment was another major concern, with the undue burden being put on First Nations unable to fund their participation in all consultations with the federal and provincial governments when it comes to Treaty and aboriginal rights. Lacking the wherewithal to evaluate environmental reports, First Nations cannot participate as fully as they are entitled to.

Those wanting to follow the proceedings can do so on APTN.