POLITICS

Upcoming budget to reflect shared federal, First Nations priorities

01/25/2012 10:56 EST | Updated 03/26/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - If landmark talks this week between First Nations and the federal government were akin to an exchange of vows on a new relationship, the next federal budget might resemble a ring to seal the deal.

The coming budget will be consistent with the priorities agreed to by aboriginal leaders and the federal government, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Wednesday.

They included a pledge to move forward with recommendations on education reform, a working group on federal funding for aboriginal reserves and a task force on economic development.

Duncan said he feels he and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations are on the same page.

"We do have our shared priorities, we have an important partnership," he said Wednesday.

"We are obviously motivated by economic development and a jobs agenda and we think that is consistent with the national direction as well, so I would anticipate that the budget will be a very good exercise."

National Chief Shawn Atleo said areas such as education need urgent attention and not just to benefit First Nations communities.

He says the economic future of Canada depends on it and that's something Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government believe as well.

"My view is that we can be both practical in areas like education, build on what we know to be the challenge, get to the work together with the Crown, agree to how we're going to implement those changes and then seek the resources to match the required changes," Atleo told reporters.

"Those are natural next steps to be looking for. Our children, as I said yesterday, cannot wait."

But some chiefs say it's the children that have been left waiting after Tuesday's day-long meetings between Harper, his cabinet and aboriginal leaders.

"We have epidemic health and social issues, gross inequities in funding for our students and virtually no share in the billions in resources being stolen from our traditional territories," said Chief Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinabek Nation.

"What we heard from Harper was a lame re-hashing of his government's so-called accomplishments for our communities and citizens."

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, on Wednesday issued a public cry for help for the Northern Ontario community Cat Lake First Nation, which it said is being ravaged by prescription drug abuse. NAN declared a state of emergency over the prescription drug epidemic in 2009.

"We need action and commitment by the government now — not weeks, months or years from now — today!" said a release.

Many hoped the Tuesday talks would have produced immediate announcements of programs that could improve living conditions on reserves.

The sight of children and families living in shacks and tents on the Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat catapulted the issue into the international spotlight late last year.

The outcry prompted the federal government to finally set a date for talks with the First Nations leadership, a meeting first promised back in June 2011.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence called the meetings a baby step.

"But the way the meeting went, it's not really a commitment to me because it's a joint-action plan, but they should have had an immediate action plan," Spence said.

"Because these crises with other First Nations have been ongoing for so many years. And it still exists to this day. So for the government to say, 'We're going to do a report by 2013,' that's a long time. I'm not very confident with the government right now."

Atleo acknowledged that there have been years of studies and task forces on the issues facing First Nations communities.

But he said this time is different. He said the point of Tuesday's talks was to get both sides working together.

"This is about moving away from government unilaterally deciding what they feel is right for First Nations," he said. "That's not a partnership."

Atleo said it is time for an end to the old notion that First Nations are merely "stakeholders" in discussions around natural resource development.

But he stopped short of saying that First Nations ought to have a veto over those projects, including the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Enbridge (TSX:ENB) wants to build a 1,170-kilometre twin pipeline that would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat in northwest B.C., where huge tankers would transport it to Asia.

The Alberta and federal governments have said the pipeline is crucial to building new markets for the country's resources, especially in Asia.

But many aboriginal groups who live along the pipeline's proposed route are concerned about potential adverse environmental impacts.

Atleo said First Nations need to be full partners in designing how Canada builds its economies.

"True partners would design a way forward together and would form a shared vision of how resource development would occur in this country," he said.

- with files from Canadian Press reporter Steve Rennie