The chiefs will hold their first summit ever with Prime Minister Stephen Harper next Tuesday, the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes discussions.
Harper is downplaying expectations for the gathering, saying an incremental approach works best.
But his officials say he, too, wants agreement on a clear process that would deliver concrete results over a set time. A process that starts with pilot projects and builds on small successes is the prime minister's favoured approach, officials say.
"We want to come out of it with a real concrete plan that we can actually do," said one senior official.
The chiefs have high hopes for a two-track approach that will deliver short-term fixes for immediate crises —perhaps within six months —and also pave the way for a fundamentally different, long-term relationship within 12 to 18 months.
"This is going to be a historic day," said Isadore Day, chief of the Serpent River First Nation near Sudbury, Ont. "It's going to be a historic meeting. And we have to have historic outcomes, outcomes that are going to be remembered for results and success."
Immediate challenges could include inadequate funding for housing, child welfare, education and water.
Long-term issues include crafting a pathway to self-governance and recognition of treaty rights, creating a more reliable fiscal framework, economic development, financial transparency and speeding up talks on comprehensive land claims.
The trick is to find funding and solutions for the immediate challenges that are consistent with deep changes both sides hope to make in the longer-term relationship.
"It can't just be a question of pouring more money into a system that will always require more money," said one federal official.
But Harper has been adamant that the gathering won't be a "big bang" approach to First Nations, with grand announcements or buckets of money.
Indeed, meaningful outcomes are by no means assured. While a few issues have been agreed upon in advance behind the scenes, any chief can participate in the dialogue, either by coming to the capital or connecting remotely. They can bring up any topic.
About 175 of them will be in the room with Harper for a couple of hours, before breaking into smaller groups to meet government officials and ministers to focus on specific issues. About 12 cabinet ministers are to attend, along with dozens of top officials from an array of departments.
The hope is that all the talk will lead to a communique at the end of the day.
But the issues are numerous, entrenched and so interconnected that breaking them down into manageable pieces is a challenge for both sides. The structure of the meeting is still in flux just days before it is set to begin.
"The First Nations-Crown gathering represents a very limited opportunity for First Nations to be able to express our concerns to Prime Minister Harper," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
"The prime minister agreed to a very controlled and orchestrated opportunity for a very brief dialogue with the First Nations leadership of this country."
Like many chiefs, Phillip says a commitment from the federal government to keep talking is the bare minimum needed to deal with the poverty and related problems on reserves across the country.
"In our view, quite frankly, an incremental approach to these dire situations really means the status quo, which is reflected in the Attawapiskat situation," he said, referring to the northern Ontario reserve that saw five families facing winter in wood-frame tents because of a housing crisis.
The Assembly of First Nations and regional chiefs have been in back-to-back meetings in an attempt to speak with a single voice and have it heard clearly at the summit.
Day said they are committed to uniting solidly behind National Chief Shawn Atleo. Even though he will be facing an election this spring and jockeying has already begun, internal politics will have to be set aside, Day said.
On the surface, both Harper and First Nations agree that education is the ticket to prosperity. They agree that First Nations need better tools for self-governance, but that they also have to improve transparency in how they handle their finances. Both sides deplore the poverty that undermines economic development and want to see natural resource development benefit First Nations.
There is little agreement on how.
The government has shown no inclination to earmark the billions of dollars First Nations say is needed for immediate crises. Chiefs will be watching the next federal budget closely to see how serious Harper really is.
Nor does Ottawa want to talk about revenue-sharing from natural resource projects — a key demand from many First Nations. That's a provincial responsibility.Suggest a correction