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Harper and Spence Take the First Step

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The Prime Minister's announcement today that he will be meeting with First Nations leaders on January 11 sets the stage for discussions that can provide meaningful progress on First Nations issues.

It was not an unexpected move as both the government and the AFN need to limit the growth of the "Idle No More" movement both in terms of its popular support and to limit any damage it might do the economy. Events of the last few days gave them that opportunity and the catalyst was the ultimatum of Chief Spence. As the "Idle No More" movement gained credibility and media coverage, Chief Spence and her hunger strike are at risk of becoming a side show with the main focus shifting to the tactics and blockades of the movement which have the potential to seriously damage the economy. Her decision to issue a 72-hour ultimatum to Harper was a bad move, and one has to question her decision as she would have known that Harper could not be seen to give into such an ultimatum.

Spence was originally one of the key motivators for the "Idle No More" movement, was this ultimatum an attempt to re-establish her position within the movement? Was the ultimatum an attempt to become a spokesperson for a grassroots movement that by its very nature has multiple spokespeople representing different interests and concerns and regions?

Her ultimatum gave the Harper government an opportunity to shift their attention from Chief Spence to limiting any economic damage the movement might cause. Spence's ultimatum ensured that the Prime Minister and his government could not deal with her and the AFN became their best option as both the government and the AFN have a mutual interest in limiting the growing influence of the "Idle No More" movement.

The movement has gained strength, even spreading beyond our borders. Any blockade that supporters of the movement establish, no matter how short the duration, costs the economy. Local towns and various levels of government have unanticipated policing costs, suppliers lose money, transportation companies lose as do retailers who can't get resupplied. A sustained period of unpredictable disruptions will hurt the economy and that has to be of concern to the federal government.

National Chief Atleo and the Assembly of First Nations must also be concerned with the growth of the movement and the dissatisfaction with the status quo that it represents. The "Idle No More" movement is challenging the authority of the chiefs and their leadership role, especially their role in effecting positive change for First Nations communities and youth. The movement reflects the grassroots frustration with both government and the aboriginal leadership who for decades have failed to solve the issues of most concern to First Nations communities.

Chief Spence's actions have given the government and the AFN an opening to work together. Politically this agreement to meet has the potential to sideline Spence. The meeting will also give Harper an opportunity to demonstrate his genuine concern for First Nations issues and his real desire to improve things. The AFN can show that they are still the ones who can get concessions from the government. By agreeing to meet, the first step has been taken. The next step is more difficult, but must include a working plan for change with firm deadlines and measurable outcomes.

This agreement to meet will also box in the opposition parties leaving them with a stark choice. They are left with the choice of supporting a working agreement between the government and aboriginal leadership or backing a hunger striker and a movement that has the potential to damage the already fragile Canadian economy. Not an enviable political position to be in.

Whatever the outcome, the movement will not fade away as it represents the legitimate frustrations of the grassroots. The question becomes whether or not the government and the First Nations leadership have enough common sense and common ground to meet, discuss and agree to solutions that will for the time being neutralize much of the frustration being displayed through the efforts of the "Idle No More" movement.

In the end any short term solution is just a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem that has been festering for generations. By seizing the moment, the AFN and the government have been handed an opportunity where they can make common cause to effect positive change for First Native communities. It is in everyone's best interest that they succeed.

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