OTTAWA - The extent of First Nations unrest this summer depends in large part on how much concrete action Stephen Harper authorizes on entrenching ancient treaty rights, says National Chief Shawn Atleo.
In a wide-ranging interview to discuss the relationship with Ottawa, the head of the Assembly of First Nations gave mixed reviews to the process launched with great fanfare in January when Harper and Atleo last met.
"Business as usual just causes ongoing conflict," Atleo told The Canadian Press. "Expressions of good faith — and implementation of those commitments (from last January) — are what is required."
Atleo says talks between senior government officials and First Nations from some parts of the country over how to fully implement historic treaty rights seem to be inching ahead. Atleo and many First Nations leaders argue that full recognition of the treaties will lead to improvements in conditions across the board — in education, housing, and the sharing of the bounty from Canada's natural resources.
"We've seen signals on the part of the government that it is prepared to do that," Atleo said.
But at the same time, the federal government continues to fight First Nations in court over child welfare funding, continues to impose legislation without consulting those it will affect, and resists widespread calls for a national inquiry into hundreds of missing or murdered aboriginal women, the national chief added.
Plus, the government has been withholding much of the documentation needed to understand the impact of residential schools.
At the same time, there is lingering discontent within many First Nations about major changes made to environmental oversight through federal legislation over the past year.
"There's always been this pattern that, 'well, let's just do one or two things now, and the rest, you know, we can deal with later,'" Atleo said.
"No. Transformative change is required because we are still in a big moment of reckoning."
As aboriginal young people become more educated and more connected through social media, they are increasingly skeptical of the establishment, whether it be the federal government or the complex structure of chiefs under the Indian Act, Atleo added.
"They...will not be swayed by press releases or statements from governments that say what they're doing is working and that it is enough. Because it isn't," Atleo said. "They are making it very clear by expressing themselves. And they will be heard."
Atleo and Harper, along with key members of their teams, held a highly contentious winter meeting on January 11, just as the Idle No More protest movement gathered strength in communities across the country.
As the leaders met, large crowds of First Nations activists and environmentalists rallied loudly in the streets, demanding more accountability from both sides.
At the same time, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence denounced the meeting since it did not include the governor-general or a wide range of chiefs, and persisted with a liquids-only hunger protest. Some chiefs openly discussed blockades and economic disruption, forecasting more upheaval this summer.
A shaken Atleo left the meeting with a commitment from Harper to empower his top officials to negotiate fundamental aboriginal rights, focusing especially on education and resource revenue sharing.
And indeed, insiders on all sides say there is considerable movement.
The new aboriginal affairs minister, Bernard Valcourt, has travelled widely and made some announcements about new regional arrangements for education, speeding up the process to settle specific claims, and working with First Nations to review the comprehensive claims process.
"While this progress is important and will have a positive impact on First Nations, we need to build on it and sustain the momentum that is being created. We will continue to work with First Nations to make concrete progress on our shared priorities," said Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Valcourt.
Activists are already signalling they are not prepared to wait.
"To me, it's like they (the government and the Assembly of First Nations) are buying time to get through the summer," said Russ Diabo, an outspoken long-time First Nations activist from the network Defenders of the Land.
His group has joined forces with Idle No More organizers and other experienced groups to stage a "Sovereignty Summer" that will protest resource projects and pipelines across the country, backed up by demonstrations in cities.
With the British Columbia government dealing the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal another blow last week, opposition will focus around the Line 9 pipeline proposal. That plan would carry bitumen from Sarnia to Montreal, said Clayton Thomas-Muller, spokesman for Sovereignty Summer.
The Line 9 focus implicates Highway 401, one of Canada's biggest and busiest thoroughfares connecting southern Ontario to Quebec.
"Communities are getting ready to make a very significant point over the summer," Thomas-Muller said.
In the interview, Atleo mentioned frequently that the ancient treaties included a commitment to peace and friendship, and that elders are constantly reminding youth of this requirement. He pointed to the "grace and strength" of the Nishiyuu walkers who trekked to Ottawa this winter and were joined by hundreds of supporters — only to find the prime minister in Toronto greeting panda bears from China.
The walkers responded with dignity, saying they had a gift for Harper when he is ready to hear them, Atleo said. But he warned that such non-violent response should not be taken for granted, pointing to conflicts at Oka, Que., Gustafsen Lake, B.C., Caledonia, Ont., and the fact that the country's jails are dominated by aboriginal prisoners.
"We want to see things improve and be better," Atleo said. "Let's make sure we remember that we've had exchanges that result in conflict and physical harm."
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