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Crown-First Nations meeting: Will it result in recognition of First Nations' rights to the lands and resources?

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As of late Thursday night, it was unclear who exactly would be attending Friday's meeting with Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders, with many Chiefs saying they would refuse to meet with Harper unless he's joined by Governor General David Johnston. 

The meeting between the Government and members of the Assembly of First Nations executive will happen on Friday, January 11th, 2013.

The Prime Minister's Office says there will be an opening session at 1:00p.m., with the Prime Minister and Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo speaking.

Then, from 1:30 to 4:00p.m. there is to be a “plenary session to discuss the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights, and economic development”

That session will be jointly chaired by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan; Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde, the AFN’s point person on Treaties; Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, British Columbia Regional Chief and the AFN's main hitter on governance.

From 4:00 to 5:00p.m. the Prime Minister and Atleo "will engage in a dialogue with the Chairs about the outcomes of the plenary session." 

The Government says the "working meeting" will take place in the building that houses the Prime Minister's offices, the Langevin Building, and will be closed to media.

It is not clear whether that includes the opening remarks and the closing dialogue, as well as the so-called "plenary."

As of the time of their news conference on Thursday afternoon, Atleo, Bellegarde and Wilson-Raybould were not too sure how it would all happen.

Nor were they certain of the exact nature and scope of the participation of the Crown (in the person of the Governor-General).

Would that be limited to a ceremony at Rideau Hall at the end of the day, as the government has announced?

Or, would the G-G -- as the representative of the Crown, with which many First Nations leaders believe they have a special relationship -- be present during the substantive meetings, as demanded by Chief Theresa Spence and others, such as the Manitoba Regional Chief?

At the end of the news conference, Atleo shrugged: "All I'm sure of is that it is five to three in the afternoon on January 10th. It is a changing situation and we will see what happens!"

Idle No More is pushing the process

 Atleo and his colleagues gave the clear impression that they are not leading this battle on behalf of Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

They came as close as possible to telling the national media that they know they’ve got a tiger by the tail and are not in full control of it.

That tiger's name is Idle No More.

Atleo told the reporters present that there are many complex issues in the Crown-First Nations relationship, and that the First Nations peoples are varied and diverse.

But he was adamant that he does not want that complexity and the resulting lack of unanimity among First Nations peoples, to be, yet again, an impediment to tangible results.

"We are at a crossroads," he pleaded, "Poverty is killing our people and we have to reset the relationship between the Government and First Nations."

Not just reserve lands

During Thursday's news conference one issue kept popping up over and over again, an issue that Idle No More has put front and centre. That issue is natural resources: who owns them, who controls them and how should they are shared.

"We are not against economic development in our territories," Bellegarde said, "But it must be sustainable, and we must be consulted."

And when the AFN leaders -- and Idle No More activists -- talk about First Nations territories, they do not mean the few acres assigned to the formal "reserves."

In the case of the "treatied" areas, they mean all of the traditional lands and resources covered by the treaties. And, in the case of those parts of the country without formal treaties (much of British Columbia, for instance), they mean all of the traditional lands to which the First Nations peoples living there have "inherent rights."

A 'First Nations national energy strategy?'

 Atleo and his colleagues noted repeatedly that the federal Government has signaled its intention to quickly pave the way to the rapid exploitation of more than $600 billion worth of natural resources, much of it on First Nations land.

That, says Atleo, is why Bills C-38 and C-45 loosened environmental regulation and oversight and pushed certain piecemeal changes in the Indian Act designed to make life simpler and easier for private businesses.

The Idle No More movement is vigorously pushing back against this unseemly haste to open the floodgates to mines, pipelines and oil and gas operations, with virtually no recognition of Aboriginal rights or interests. And the AFN leadership is telling the Government that it better treat that pushback with respect.

The AFN Chiefs did not propose many tangible ideas at their Thursday news conference.

However, on the natural resources issue Bellegarde did muse about one, what he called a "kind of First Nations national energy strategy."

The Saskatchewan regional Chief seemed to be suggesting that the Canadian and provincial governments treat First Nations as equal partners in the plans to open the country to massively increased resource exploitation.

From the federal government's side, Bellegarde said, such a strategy should not be consigned to the Aboriginal Affairs ghetto. Rather it should be an all-of-government affair, led not by Minister Duncan, but by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

It is not a radical suggestion.

It is in fact very moderate and reasonable.

But ownership and control of the wealth of the lands and waters is where the rubber hits the road in Crown-First Nations relations.

Once a willingness to negotiate comprehensive agreements with First Nations

 Way back in the 1970s, when the Bourassa government of Quebec wanted to build a massive hydro development in the James, Hudson and Ungava Bay watersheds, the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec -- who had never signed any treaties with the Crown -- managed to force the Quebec and Canadian governments to negotiate a comprehensive land claims and self-government agreement.

It is hardly a perfect agreement, and the native peoples of the region have had to deal with such negative environmental consequences as mercury poisoning.

But the James Bay Accord did recognize inherent First Nations title to the land and waters and did provide for ongoing royalties and self-governing territory-wide institutions in exchange for "extinguishment" of those inherent rights.

A lot of First Nations people do not like the idea of "extinguishment," and they may have a point.

But even if First Nations were ready to accept having all future claims "extinguished," there is very little inclination on the part of government and industry, these days, to recognize First Nations' sovereignty over vast swathes of territory, and then negotiate in good faith for the resources in those territories.

These days we get tar sands development in Alberta, gold mines in Northwestern Ontario, and diamond mines in the Ontario's James and Hudson Bay regions with barely a nod to the existence of First Nations communities.

The provincial and federal governments and the mining and oil companies do not consider themselves obliged to negotiate seriously with First Nations.

All they are willing to contemplate are token measures to mitigate "impact" on First Nations reserves --crumbs from the table. We no longer get formal, comprehensive, territory-wide treaty negotiations in advance of massive resource development, as we did in Quebec in the 1970s.

Government believes the Treaties mean First Nations gave up their claims on the lands and waters

Decades ago, federal officials had concluded, privately, that there should be no more deals on the model of the James Bay Accord.

That agreement was too expensive and granted too much to the native peoples, Government of Canada folks would tell you privately.

And so, in lands covered by the so-called “numbered” treaties -- such as the Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario that includes Attawapiskat and Kashechewan -- businesses and governments proceed as though the First Nations peoples long ago gave up their rights to the natural resources.

And they supposedly gave up their rights in exchange for -- for nothing, really -- in exchange for cramped "reserves," with no land or economic base, and horribly inadequate and underfunded basic services.

Will a re-set of Crown-First Nations relations include recognition that Aboriginal peoples, in a sense, “own” a good part of the natural resources the federal government would like to see sold to the highest bidders, as quickly as possible?

That will be a hard sell with the current federal government.










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