Images of families huddled in unheated tents and temporary shacks on the northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat remain fresh in the minds of many Canadians ahead of a meeting between aboriginal leaders and the prime minister and members of his cabinet next week in Ottawa.
The still unresolved housing crisis in the small Cree community on James Bay that dominated headlines for several weeks at the end of 2011 and set off a national debate about living conditions on reserves will cast a shadow over the one-day Crown-First Nations Gathering, which has been in the works for more than a year.
But although the shortage of adequate housing is a serious problem in many aboriginal communities and will no doubt be discussed at the meeting, the more than 400 chiefs from across Canada who will accompany Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo to Ottawa will also be looking to tackle broader issues.
The goals for the Jan. 24 meeting, in which chiefs will also be able to participate via webcast, are lofty. On the First Nations' end, Atleo says, the aim is to do no less than "reset the relationship" between the Crown and First Nations, a relationship that stalled six years ago when the current Conservative government abandoned the Kelowna accord, a five-year, $5-billion plan to improve the lives of First Nations negotiated by the Liberal government of Paul Martin.
The government, for its part, sees the gathering as "an opportunity to work together to further improve the quality of life and long-term economic prosperity of Canada's aboriginal peoples." Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has met with Atleo and individual aboriginal leaders before, it will be the first time that he meets collectively with the top national and regional political representatives of the country's First Nations.
According to a preliminary agenda released by the AFN, three concurrent sessions will be held during which First Nations delegations can address members of the cabinet and government officials on the following topics:
- Strengthening the Relationship and Enabling Opportunities (treaties, rights, governance, jurisdiction, title, etc.).
- Unlocking the Potential of First Nation Economies (economic development, partnerships, land issues).
- Realizing the Promise of First Nations Peoples (education, health, safe and secure communities, etc.).
The issues on the agenda are huge, and it is still unclear how exactly the discussions will proceed, how many regional chiefs will be able to make presentations, which of them will be able to address the prime minister directly, which cabinet members will be in attendance or even how long the prime minister will actually be at the meeting.
"We have many issues — on top of the national agenda — that are very specific to Quebec, and we certainly would appreciate an opportunity to present those. In what format? For how long? … All that is still very unclear and unsure at this point," said Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador.
First Nations leaders plan to hold a "pre-meeting" on Jan. 23 at the Fairmount Chateau Laurier, where the gathering will be held, to finalize the logistics.
Picard and chiefs representing other regions of the country are putting the final touches on their own agendas this week, but conversations with several of them suggest there are several overarching priorities they hope to raise.
Resource revenue-sharing, schools
Economic development is high on the list. Outside of the need for more jobs and opportunities for developing local economies, especially in remote First Nations communities, a key concern is securing a fair share of revenues from the exploitation of natural resources on aboriginal lands.
The Alberta oilsands might get the bulk of the press, but most other provinces and territories have at least some First Nations whose land is affected by resource development — from diamond mining in northern Ontario to logging in B.C. to hydro-electricity generation in Quebec.
Joseph Jobin is the chief operating officer of the organization that represents the 24 First Nations in northern Alberta that live on territory covered by the 19th-century treaty known as Treaty 8, which spans parts of three provinces and the Northwest Territories.
"Treaty 8 — a lot of that is oil and gas development and forestry," says Jobin. "We [also] still have some traditional communities living off the land. So, that whole gamut of economic development is of big importance for us."
Alberta chiefs will also be talking about education at the meeting, specifically, the need to bring reserve schools in line with provincial standards.
On education as well as health, what most First Nations leaders will be pressing for is a commitment to levels of funding and service comparable with those for non-aboriginal communities.
Currently, the quality of schools and health care on many reserves is below provincial and federal standards in the rest of the country, which, aboriginal leaders say, is part of the reason why health and education outcomes on reserves are so much poorer than off-reserve.
More than half of First Nations people are younger than 25, but less than half of First Nations students graduate from high school, compared with more than 80 per cent of other young Canadians.
"What we're looking for is alignment: treat our on-reserve schools the same way you treat off-reserve schools," said Jobin.
Land claims, self-government
Governance reform and resolving outstanding land claims are also top priorities for most of the chiefs attending the gathering.
Aboriginal leaders feel the current process of settling what are known as comprehensive land claims unjustly favours the federal government, doesn't put all parties on an equal footing and is not conducive to a speedy resolution of claims. (Comprehensive claims deal with land not covered by historic treaties or other legal agreements and are distinct from so-called specific claims, which relate to grievances over historic treaties or the Crown's management of First Nations funds or assets and are adjudicated by an independent tribunal.)
"We have to take a very strong look at the current policy in place to deal with land claims: Is it sufficient? Is it fair? Is the policy solid enough to improve the speed at which we settle claims?" said Picard.
Five out of Quebec's 10 First Nations have outstanding land claims, he said, and most are far from resolving them.
"Especially in the context of the Plan Nord of the Quebec government, which is looking at the massive exploitation of lands over the next 25 years, certainly, the issue of land and resolving land claims is becoming more important, [and] the onus … is in the hands of the federal government," Picard said.
Reform of the comprehensive land claims policy also has the support of B.C. First Nations, for whom treaty negotiations and governance will be key issues at next week's meeting, according to B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould.
B.C. First Nations have made some significant strides in the area of self-government in part because the province set up an independent treaty commission to oversee the negotiation of tripartite agreements between B.C., First Nations and Ottawa.
Still, negotiations take years. Since B.C.'s treaty process was established in 1992, only the Tsawwassen First Nation and the Maa-nulth First Nations have completed the required six stages parties must go through to become self-governing (although other nations, like the Nisga'a, have negotiated agreements outside the treaty process). Three other First Nations are close to completing the process, but another 55 groups are still winding their way through lengthy and often contentious negotiations.
Wilson-Raybould would like to see the federal government provide more support to First Nations that want to break free of the constraints of the Indian Act and assume greater control over their own affairs — whether it be in the form of full autonomy or control over certain "governance sectors," such as land management or education.
"Our communities are looking to the federal government to work with us to develop a mechanism wherein when our communities are ready — when they’ve established … their own constitutions supported by our citizens — that they are able to move beyond the Indian Act to be able to, like every other Canadian, have the ability and the right to make decisions for themselves and to not have decisions made for communities by bureaucrats that aren't invested, necessarily, in the community and live 3,000 miles away."
First Nations autonomy is also a key issue for the Manitoba First Nations that will be attending the Ottawa meeting. Manitoba chiefs will attempt to highlight the "constitutional uncertainty" in which First Nations exist as long as the question of who is or isn't a citizen of a First Nation is determined by a federally administered Indian Register and not First Nations themselves, said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"Right now, the status Indian is a creature of statute, and we need to address that, because some day, there won't be status Indians," Nepinak said.
Nepinak said chiefs from northern Manitoba, who are represented by the organization Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., are preparing to raise issues of water quality and shortage of housing in remote and isolated northern communities.
However, Nepinak said he is doubtful there will be much opportunity to discuss real solutions to specific problems at the Jan. 24 gathering.
"It's not entirely the right forum for substantive change," Nepinak said. "So, the position that Manitoba is advancing is we're pushing for a first ministers conference on First Nations issues."
The Manitoba chiefs are not alone in hoping the gathering will lead to future high-level meetings. First Nations leaders are acutely aware of just how far apart they and the Harper government are on the issues that matter most to their people, such as housing.
Picard said Quebec First Nations identified a housing crisis 12 years ago, long before the public had heard of Attawapiskat, and have been rigorous about updating their needs assessment ever since — to no avail. Currently, the province's First Nations are about 7,000 housing units short.
"The bread and butter issues have to be dealt with, and it's certainly something that this government cannot avoid," Picard said. "If the Jan. 24 meeting can be a commitment to hold more meetings in the future, that certainly would be somewhat of an achievement."
Wilson-Raybould agrees that the success of the Jan. 24 meeting will be measured less by what happens on the day than by what happens after. She said the B.C. chiefs are managing their expectations but don't consider the gathering an empty gesture.
"We're not looking at this meeting as being a symbolic meeting or being a photo opportunity; we look at it as the first step," she said. "The real work continues after this meeting, and [we hope] to continue to have this relationship not only with the prime minister but his cabinet."
The opportunity to speak directly with senior politicians, as opposed to the federal bureaucrats First Nations usually deal with, is one of the key aspects of the meeting. Aboriginal leaders had been pressing for high-level talks with the Harper government since July 2010, but the idea only gained traction after the two sides committed to it in their "joint action plan" on aboriginal issues in June 2011. It took the glare of media attention on the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, however, to get the prime minister to finally agree to a date, which he did Dec. 1 in a meeting with Atleo.
"This is an opportunity to engage in a political discussion," Wilson-Raybould said. "This will be the first time that a lot of our chiefs will have an audience directly with the prime minister, and because that's the case, we want to ensure that as many of our leadership have the opportunity to address their issues."