First Nations Summit: Stephen Harper Calls For Changes To Modernize Indian Act (VIDEO)

First Posted: 01/24/2012 4:00 am Updated: 01/26/2012 11:17 am

OTTAWA - The federal government and First Nations emerged from historic talks Tuesday pledging fundamental change but with no immediate solutions for the fundamental problems plaguing aboriginal communities.

In a joint statement arrived at after hours of debate, the two sides acknowledged their relationship has been fraught with problems.

"Unfortunately, there have been low points in our relationship. A series of misguided and harmful government policies in our past has shaken First Nations confidence in our relationship," said the statement.

"We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them and affirm that they will not be repeated."

The three page joint statement laid out commitments in five areas, including removing barriers to First Nations governance and advancing the implementation of treaties.

But how those shared causes would be advanced wasn't entirely clear.

The Conservative government and First Nations chiefs did agree to set up a working group to review the structure of government financing and also to set up a task force within three months on economic development.

The initiatives spring from a joint action plan the two sides released last June.

Part of that plan had included developing recommendations on improving education on reserves, and while it had been widely believed that Tuesday's talks would lead to an endorsement of new powers for native communities in that area, it wasn't part of the final communique.

Instead, both sides agreed they'd review the eventual report on education and implement those recommendations they could both agree on.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the discussions Tuesday had touched on every element of First Nations lives and livelihoods, including tapping into a greater share of natural resources wealth.

"The sense is that our work does not end here. This is very much the beginning," Atleo said.

"We wanted to see an expression of commitment not only to this day but that they would be prepared for an ongoing effort with us. They've expressed that willingness to do that."

Both sides have pledged to report back in one year's time on the progress they've made overall.

The date for the talks had been set late last year, as residents of the Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat became poster children for squalid living conditions in many aboriginal communities.

National chiefs had gone into Tuesday's meetings hoping for immediate agreements on how to solve some of those problems, as well as a long-term plan.

But Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the gathering did what was intended: strengthen and re-establish the relationship between the two sides.

"One of the important things - you have to offer hope and hope is a great motivator," he said.

The day had began in apparent conflict over the Indian Act, but the two sides managed to close the gap by agreeing that while it can't be immediately repealed, it can be modernized.

Atleo, who earlier in the day led a parade of native speakers pillorying the act, appeared to extend an olive branch to the prime minister by stating it "cannot be replaced overnight."

"We will arrive at a day where the Indian Act is simply obsolete, a relic of the past," said Atleo. "And we can do it. The proof is that some First Nations are already there."

The Indian Act, first passed in 1876, gave Ottawa exclusive jurisdiction over "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians." The legislation, which was last amended in 2000, defines who is recognized among First Nations and sets out rules on everything from how reserves operate to the effect of marriage on status.

Harper told the gathering the act can be updated to reflect modern practices and while he conceded the act led to problems over the years, but the government has no plans to repeal the legislation.

"After 136 years, that tree has deep roots," he said. "Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole.

Though there had been fears the prime minister would beat a hasty retreat from Tuesday's meetings, he stayed throughout the day and was seated front row centre for the closing speeches.

It was a small gesture of goodwill that went a long way, said Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.

But how far that goodwill extends remains to be seen. Picard said he's not sure he trusts the government.

"Time will tell if this meeting has proven itself to be useful," he said.

"What we have to remind ourselves is we've had six years with this government, and in recent months, especially since this government became a majority government, they've been pushing pieces of legislation where there was no consultation in any way with our people, with our communities, so if that way of doing business doesn't change, obviously the trust will fail to be there."

Loading Slideshow...
  • Oka Crisis

    Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)

  • Oka Crisis

    A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)

  • Oka Crisis

    A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)

  • Oka Crisis

    A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)

  • Ipperwash

    Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)

  • Ipperwash

    Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

  • Caledonia Protests

    First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)


Filed by Kenny Yum  |  Report Corrections