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Paul Martin Should Get Off Aboriginal High Horse

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Most reports indicate some progress was made at the Crown-First Nations Gathering yesterday. This is positive news and a sign that both sides are inching forward and making progress. While there was speculation that Harper would only attend for a few minutes, he surprised observers by committing much of his day to the proceedings.

While we can concentrate on the differences between the sides right down to what symbolism was used -- Harper referred to the Indian Act as a tree while Shawn Atleo, National Chief, described it as a rock -- there are other positive signs. Clearly Atleo and Harper get along and communicate with each other. I get the sense that there is a mutual respect for each other and this comes across in public. This bodes well for any private discussions they might have.

Another significant feature of yesterday's meeting was the amount of time the Prime Minister committed to the event. Anyone who has worked with a Prime Minister knows the intense pressure their schedule is under. This holds true at the ministerial level as well. Meetings and time commitments are measured in minutes, not hours. The fact that Harper set aside his agenda to spend a significant amount of his day at the conference sends a signal to both ministers and departmental officials that the Prime Minister has now taken a keen interest in these files. That should translate into better results.

Clearly the Indian Act will be overhauled. While Atleo suggested doing away with it, in effect that is what will happen by the time it is updated, amended, and changed. This will be a significant step forward providing of course both sides cooperate, show good faith, and agree on the necessary changes.

Some of the items announced in the joint statement are important to First Nations as they try to manage their affairs. Moving to a multi-year funding arrangement is crucial. No longer will Chiefs have to go cap in hand to the minister and department each year.

The same holds true for educational reforms and developing an action plan for economic development for First Nations. Both sides are inching forward. If the constructive tone on display at the gathering continues, there is a possibility of real progress. Long overdue progress, maybe measured in inches, but at least things are moving in the right direction.

I was disappointed to see former prime minister Paul Martin come out and attack Harper on the conference. I think this was a missed opportunity. Martin has built up considerable experience working with First Nations. His foundation -- Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI) -- and its success in working to advance education and training opportunities offers one model, although not the only one, on ways to move educational issues forward.

He has also had success in attracting corporate donations and investment to encourage aboriginal business development. I would have preferred to see him offer to work with the present Prime Minister, rather than refight old battles. In the same way I hope the present government will not ignore Martin's work or expertise simply because he is a former political opponent and Liberal Prime Minister. First Nations issues should cross party lines. Solutions not scoring political points should be the end game.

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