POLITICS

First Nations end high-level treaty talks with Ottawa

01/10/2014 01:57 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT
High-level treaty talks with the federal government have come to a halt less than a year after a delegation of First Nations leaders met with the prime minister during a historic gathering in Ottawa at the height of Idle No More protests last winter.

Two senior oversight committees were born out of the controversial meeting between Stephen Harper and the Assembly of First Nations, led by National Chief Shawn Atleo, last Jan. 11. The meeting was held as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was in the midst of a six-week self-described hunger strike.

But a group of national chiefs ordered the AFN last month to end the work of the committee looking into treaties, laying bare a rift first exposed one year ago when Spence and Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak were shut out of the meeting with Harper.

The two were among a group of chiefs who said they were opposed to the idea of having the AFN represent them where treaty negotiations were involved.

"The senior oversight committee, the way it is, in its current form, is stopped," Perry Bellegarde, the AFN regional chief for Saskatchewan, said Thursday in an interview with CBC News.

Atleo appointed Bellegarde, who is also a strong advocate for treaty rights, to chair the committee on treaties on behalf of the national organization.

Ultimately, Bellegarde said, the committee "really didn't go anywhere."

The talks officially ended after a resolution passed by Chief Lynn Acoose from Sakimay First Nations in Saskatchewan during a special assembly of chiefs in December.

Acoose, in her draft resolution, said there had been "neither common consensus nor unanimous support regarding the AFN representing Treaty First Nations in discussions with Canada on treaties and their implementation."

The resolution that passed directed the AFN and Bellegarde to end the meetings with Ottawa until treaty chiefs have obtained the consent of members to move forward.

It was seconded by Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, and passed with the objection of two national chiefs and the abstention of 12 others.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has already started to meet with representatives of treaty organizations on a one-on-one basis, CBC News has learned.

"Our government has been working to increase the dialogue on treaty relationships and we will continue doing so in a manner that respects the rights and autonomy of each Treaty First Nation, including on a one-on-one basis, if so is their preference," Valcourt told CBC News in a written statement last week.

If a treaty chief wants to negotiate directly with the government "that's their right," Bellegarde said.

Meetings doomed from start

Bellegarde, who also speaks on behalf of Treaty Four, of which Acoose is a member, conceded that the idea of a senior oversight committee made up of representatives from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs never took off.

"We've never embraced the senior oversight committee concept for treaties because we disagreed, and we weren't clear on their terms of reference, authority and mandate," Bellegarde said.

Bellegarde wrote a letter to Harper last June expressing those concerns and asking for clarity.

"We just didn't want a team of bureaucrats coming together with no authority to make decisions," Bellegarde said.

Atleo hand-delivered Bellegarde's letter to the prime minister when the two met for 15 minutes on June 20.

In a letter to chiefs and councils dated the same day, Atleo said "the prime minister re-iterated commitments to ensure oversight and mandate including his office and the Privy Council to advance treaty implementation as well as reform of the comprehensive claims policy," Atleo wrote.

Bellegarde said Atleo received a formal response to the letter, but the committee's mandate "still was not clear."

He said some chiefs are now discussing the idea of having a national treaty commissioner responsible for implementing treaties. The person would be chosen jointly by the government and First Nations and report to the Crown.

Progress on land claims

The other senior oversight committee struck after the high-stakes meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders was tasked with reviewing the federal government's policy on comprehensive land claims.

It was led by Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief for British Columbia, and Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, who met with senior officials from the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs eight times over the past year.

As CBC News reported, the committee concluded its work on Dec. 6 and is recommending to Harper that the government update its policy on how it negotiates and resolves disputes over land claims.

Valcourt told CBC News in a written statement on Jan. 2 that the senior oversight committee on comprehensive claims "will provide advice to the government and First Nation stakeholders on options to renew, update or reform Canada’s comprehensive claims policy, including a broad range of reconciliation options."

"While this progress is important and will have a positive impact on First Nations, we will continue to build on it and sustain the momentum that is being created," Valcourt said.

"In the new year, we will continue to work with First Nations to make concrete progress on our shared priorities."

Outside of these two committees, some progress was also made on education reform.

In a conciliatory letter to Atleo in December, Valcourt said the government was willing to negotiate improvements to its plan to reform First Nations education and dropped a 2014 deadline for the legislation.

This month will also mark the second-year anniversary of the Crown – First Nations gathering that brought together the Governor General, the prime minister and members of his cabinet with the AFN and a delegation of chiefs.