OTTAWA — Canada’s First Nations' chiefs say they are cautiously optimistic that tomorrow’s Crown-First Nations Gathering will lead to a new relationship between the federal government and their people.
But news that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no plans to stay and listen to the approximately 400 chiefs who have come to Ottawa to participate in the landmark summit have already irked many of them Monday.
"I totally disagree with the Prime Minister not showing up for the afternoon sessions, I believe that it is his responsibility to listen to us, for whatever we have to say to him to fix our communities," Chief Jimmy Thorassie of the Sayisi Dene First Nation in northern Manitoba told The Huffington Post.
"These are the things that need to be addressed and if he is not going to address them...?," Thorassie added, lifting his hands in the air. "I just disagree with him."
“Right now, there isn’t the possibility for all the chiefs to participate in tomorrow’s meeting with the government, (Harper) will instead meet selected people in private,” Chief Denis Landry, of the Conseil de bande des Abenakis de Wolinak said.
“When it goes well with some people we invite them, and when it goes less well, we sideline them,” Landry added.
He was hoping Tuesday’s meetings might lead to real change in the type of relationship the federal government has fostered with First Nations people.
“We are currently at an impasse where the First Nations don’t see where we are going to end up ... The First Nations are backtracking … The needs are getting greater and the cuts are getting deeper,” he said.
“We hope it won’t get worse, but what we see from this government, it’s not about bettering relationships between nations,” Landry said.
NDP MP Peter Julian said Harper has an important obligation to be at the meetings.
"I think to have the Prime Minister spend one day on aboriginal issues given the crisis that so many communities across this country are experiencing, that is the least that he could do," he said.
"This is a government that has neglected aboriginal communities, has neglected the growing housing crisis, has neglected the chronic poverty that we are seeing, he has a responsibility to be there," Julian added.
Harper's spokesman Andrew MacDougall told reporters Monday that Harper would attend Tuesday morning's opening ceremonies and deliver a 20 minute speech, but that he won't be at any of the sessions discussing potential areas for change.
"The prime minister is going to be giving a good chunk of his day to go to that gathering," MacDougall said. "He looks forward to it, expects to have productive time there and the rest of the government is fully engaged on this."
MacDougall noted that nearly a third of the federal cabinet and some forty high-ranking officials would be in attendance to help start identifying some areas where Canada can move forward with First Nations peoples.
Monday, Harper met with a few chiefs privately in his office. He plans to sit down with Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Tuesday.
Grand Chief Denise Stonefish, from the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians in Ontario, said she was “optimistic” about the meeting, but added “that’s just right on the edge.”
“I’m being hopeful, but we are not going to accomplish everything in one day so that’s why I’m looking at building a strong foundation and moving forward in the long term, not just with this current government but also with any subsequent governments,” she said.
"Hopefully, that will take us out of the third world conditions that exist," she added.
The relationship with the federal government is pretty tenuous right now, Stonefish said. “I get a little perturbed when they say that we can’t manage ourselves and they still need to come in and dictate to us what needs to be done.”
Stonefish is hoping to see progress on education so that young people can seize opportunities and move forward in their lives. Schools on reserves are underfunded and First Nations should be given control and sufficient monetary and teaching resources to invest in people’s futures, she said.
Chief Irvin Sinclair of the Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Oxford House, Manitoba said he also hoped Tuesday’s meeting would be the first of many with the prime minister and other provincial and territorial premiers.
“I hope that they will modernize our partnership, because we have First Nations in Manitoba especially that have come a long way and we are ready and willing to run our own governments and they should be able to understand that now,” he said.
He hopes communities can be given more control over natural resources and revenue sharing. “It boggles the mind when you are surrounded by wealth and you are not allowed to share any of it,” he told HuffPost.
But the first step toward fixing the “outdated and disconnected” relationship is listening, Sinclair said.
“They need to listen to us, is the bottom line.”
Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinow Okimakanak said listening would come with the overhaul of the electoral process.
Some Manitoba chiefs are suggesting the federal government set aside seats in the House of Commons and the Senate for First Nations representatives.
“We would elect our First Nations people in the House of Commons for people to speak on our behalf because a lack of representation and a lack of leadership that is happening in the House is what is causing all these crises in our communities. The lack of running water, absolutely no running water in my First Nations, there are 1,000 homes that absolutely doesn’t have no running water, this is what is needed here today,” Harper said.
“The Attawapiskats, they had a lake with no clean running water, well we have to speak. Those words have to be spoken in the House, who is speaking on our behalf? Nobody. That is why we are still in this state today," he added.
Selected seats for First Nations voters is not a radical new idea. The failed Charlottetown Accord proposed dedicated Senate seats for aboriginal peoples.
Many chiefs HuffPost spoke with said they were supportive of the idea, which might be easily accommodated now that the Conservative government has added 30 new seats to the Commons and boundary commissions are preparing to redraw riding borders.
But Stonefish said she she wasn’t sure representation would turn into action.
“We’d have a voice, but I don’t know if it would help in swaying any of the decisions,” she said.