01/11/2013 09:54 EST | Updated 03/13/2013 05:12 EDT

First Nations, Harper Meeting: Commitment To Treaty Talks Will Bring Fundamental Change, Atleo Says

OTTAWA - When the hard-won meeting between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was finally over on Friday, the exhausted and contested chiefs said they could hardly believe what had been accomplished.

Despite rancorous boycotts by some chiefs and a door-pounding protest on the front steps of the prime minister's working office Friday, National Chief Shawn Atleo declared that Harper has finally agreed to top-level talks to modernize and implement the ancient treaties that were always supposed to bring peace and prosperity to First Nations.

There were early indications that what Atleo saw as a critical achievement, others saw as insufficient. Chief Theresa Spence, whose month-old fast has galvanized a cross-country grassroots protest movement, said the results of the meeting fell short of what was required for her to abandon her liquid diet.

Atleo defended what was delivered in the meeting with the prime minister.

"The implications here are massive," the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations said in an interview after the four-hour meeting wrapped up.

Treaties, he says, determine aboriginal rights to the land, its resources and its uses. And while large parts of the country have looked to those treaties for decades or even centuries for salvation, the treaties have never been truly implemented, the chiefs say.

"What First Nations are seeking and what we will press for at the highest political level is recognition and implementation of our rights," Atleo said. "That can only come from a political mandate. Well, the prime minister has just signalled engaging at that level."

First Nations have long made clear that Harper can't expect to progress meaningfully with his ambitious natural resource agenda unless he deals with treaty rights first, Atleo added.

But the agreement at Friday's meeting is only a baby step down that road. The four hours of talks — between Harper, his officials and three cabinet ministers on the one hand and a couple of dozen First Nations representatives on the other — only sets the stage for another round of discussions within the next month.

And in order for the commitment to treaty talks to work, the Ontario and Manitoba First Nations who boycotted Friday's meetings will have to come back into the Assembly of First Nations fold.

Ontario and Manitoba are two of the country's key regions governed by treaties, and chiefs from those province must assess and apply any of the broad strokes of Friday's agreement apply in their areas, said Grand Chief Edward John from the First Nation Summit in British Columbia.

"They need to be involved in the development of the modalities of that. The treaty First Nations need to step up and design this," said John, who attended the meeting.

First Nations in northern Ontario and Manitoba are among the most impoverished in Canada, and their people have long complained that Canada is not living up to its side of the treaty.

But the chiefs from those regions refused to attend the Harper meeting because it did not include the Governor General — a key demand since the treaties were signed by a representative of the Crown.

"Our leaders, there were some who in the end said they were surprised that the prime minister was making the kinds of commitments we heard," Atleo said.

But as the weightiness of his commitment set in, the leaders were also overwhelmed by the task in front of them.

"So when we sat and huddled as a delegation, we reflected on the deep challenges that we had."

But secondary demands — including a repeal of contentious sections of the government's omnibus budget bills — were dismissed or put off for another day.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the talks with Atleo and about 20 other native leaders were "frank" and "constructive," while acknowledging much work remains.

Perhaps most significantly, Duncan said the prime minister and the powerful Privy Council Office — the bureaucracy that supports the PMO — will now take an active role on "those sticky items which are identified which could use some direction from the centre."

In other words, one year after another highly symbolic meeting that was supposed to reset the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations, a sense of urgency may have emerged.

But the chiefs have yet to declare a victory because they've been down this road before, said John.

"Today I have to wait and see what transpires because we were already made promises that were not kept," he said.

Some might credit the restive, cross-country Idle No More native protest movement, as well as the month-long hunger protest by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, for any perceived momentum.

But a central tenet of Idle No More dissent is the government's overhaul of environmental oversight and protections of fisheries and waterways included in the massive budget bills rammed through Parliament last spring and last fall.

On that point, Duncan said the government saw no reason to make any changes and had fulfilled its constitutional duty to consult with First Nations beforehand.

"We're quite comfortable that we have met our constitutional obligations with those bills and we believe there's every reason to proceed," Duncan said.

He said prime minister makes sure "that there is regular knowledge of any concerns that may come from the First Nation leadership," regarding legislation.

Atleo and the chiefs in the meeting with Harper and his ministers pushed hard on that point, but made no progress, John said.

"That's the crux of the problem."

Plus, Harper did not give any ground on First Nations' requests to set up a public inquiry on violence against aboriginal women — a key demand for many grassroots protesters that has garnered support across the country.

It was not immediately clear whether the results of the meeting would be enough for the two sides to find enough common ground to re-establish Atleo's leadership, repair the Crown-First Nations relationship and quell restless protesters across the country.

"There's no question, it has been the most challenging moment that I personally can recall in our work," Atleo admitted. "We've always known there is no easy way forward, and we said that to the prime minister today."

Atleo's ability to recover politically from the schisms and drama of the past two days "depends on the outcome of the meeting," said Harvey Yesno, grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which groups reserves across northern Ontario.

Yesno was among those who boycotted the meeting with Harper. But he said the Ontario chiefs are not ready to ask for Atleo's head simply because he met Harper against their will.

"There will be another time for that kind of discussion," said Yesno. "We have to move things along."

If Atleo is able to deliver a concrete process to revisit historic treaties and modernize them — a process led by a powerful person in government, with strict timelines to deliver results — then his reputation would be restored, Yesno said.

Contrary to Harper's original plan, he stayed for the duration of the afternoon talks, along with several key cabinet ministers: Duncan, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement.

Missing from the government list was Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whom First Nations were hoping to meet to discuss a different way of sharing the bounty from natural resource extraction.

Thousands of protesters filled the streets around Parliament Hill, chanting, dancing and demanding that Harper act to improve the conditions on reserves — cries that echoed through the meeting room as Harper and his team met the chiefs.

Asked whether those protests would subside now that Harper has committed to a treaty process, Atleo said he thinks his people will need to see evidence of change first — a belief that has added urgency to the process with Ottawa.

"I think the voices of our people, they will not be silenced."

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