War and Peace — those were the two symbols that kept popping into my mind as I watched the Canada-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa on January 24, 2012. My father always told me to pay careful attention to my surroundings and that even the smallest of signs could be an indication of the real threat behind someone’s words or actions. He was always curious about people, how their minds worked and how their actions often betrayed their real intentions. He felt it was important for me to always keep that in the back of my mind.

So, when I watched what was called the “Crown-First Nation Gathering” but was really a meeting between Harper, a few Conservative Cabinet Ministers, and too many bureaucrats on one side, and a very limited number of First Nation Chiefs on the other — I knew my father was right. Liberal and NDP MPs were not allowed to attend, but instead had to sit in the media room where I was watching the events. Thus, unless someone has anointed Prime Minister Harper King of Canada, this was far from a “Crown” First Nation gathering — but instead was a Conservative meeting with the AFN and selected Chiefs.

True to my father’s advice, I decided that I would pay attention to all aspects of this “gathering”. The first thing is how the meeting came about. The promise of this meeting had been made several times by the Harper Conservatives as part of their election campaigns. This promised meeting was not born of any interest in building partnerships between the Crown and First Nations, but was born instead of political aspirations, self-interest and self-promotion. Even once Harper was elected, many years went by and no meeting. It was not until the horrific conditions in Attawapiskat were highlighted by the media and Harper could not easily deflect the attention that the Conservatives were shamed into finally setting a date for his “election promise” meeting.

The other thing I noticed was that this meeting was called in a rush. It was announced at the height of the Attawapiskat media frenzy and to the shock of most First Nations leaders and communities. This goes to show how little consultation or partnership is really at the base of the current “relationship” between First Nations and Canada. It also shows how little consultation there is between AFN and First Nations. Yet, despite how many surprises the Conservatives pull out of their… hats, they seem to be fairly certain that National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Shawn Atleo will support them.

They must be very certain of Atleo’s unconditional support, because the way in which the gathering unfolded really showed how little consideration the Conservatives have for First Nations. The whole event was entirely controlled by the Conservatives, in terms of the rushed date, the very restricted agenda, the attendees, location, speakers, and timing. More than that, the entire meeting was steeped in symbolism, none of which reflected our peoples, Nations and histories, but was representative of the dictatorial and confrontational stance of the Conservatives vis-a-vis our Nations.

The meeting was held on Conservative territory — the John Diefenbaker building — on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Diefenbaker was a Conservative Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963. He is credited with repealing the laws that prevented “Indians” from voting in elections. He did little to address the poverty or blatant discrimination against First Nations, the atrocities being committed in residential schools, or the denial of treaty and land rights. His contribution was self-serving — expanding what he obviously hoped would be a supportive new electorate.

The meeting itself was very tightly controlled by the Conservatives, and changes were made to the agenda, the attendee list, location and other logistics on nearly a daily basis leading up to the meeting. At one point, the media reported that any Chief who wanted to attend could do so, and we heard registration numbers of up to 400 Chiefs. Then it was confirmed that the Prime Minister would only stay for the opening ceremonies and gift exchange but would not attend the actual meeting. This resulted in a huge backlash by most Chiefs, First Nations members and commentators, with the notable exception of Atleo and the AFN who sung Harper’s praises throughout.

While the media was engaged in that debate, the Conservatives were still changing the agenda, the speakers, and were secretive about the location. First Nations leaders didn’t know whether to attend or not. This shifted the focus away from the purpose of the meeting to whether or not Harper would even attend. The Conservatives also asked the AFN to tell the regional First Nation organizations to cut down the number of chiefs they’d send to the gathering. This of course was more than just insulting to First Nations, many of whom had made travel arrangements when the meeting was called. So from “any Chief who can travel to Ottawa” to well under 200 of the possible 634 Chiefs were “allowed” to attend — the whole meeting was mired in confusion and with little input from First Nations.

None of this organizational nightmare would compare to the very overt symbolism embedded in the actual ceremonies. The gathering was held in a government building, with a limited number of chiefs, separated from their real strength — their people, under the guard of many RCMP, undercover security and what looked like snipers on top of the building. It is very notable that one of our most respected elders in the procession was immediately followed by an RCMP officer. Similarly, after our elder gave a prayer, this was immediately followed up by an RCMP singing Oh Canada. This is symbolic of the very real control of our populations by Canada’s police, RCMP and military. Our relationship has been and continues to based on control over our communities by Canada in often harsh and deadly ways.

The fact that the Prime Minister was speaking of trust and relationship-building while we were surrounded by RCMP and snipers was more than a little ironic, but is in fact a testimony to the insincerity of Canada in moving forward in peace. Those RCMP and snipers, whether dressed in uniform red or sniper black, represent all the over-representation of our people in their prisons, the starlight tours, deaths in custody, brutal beatings, the deaths of our children in residential schools brought back there by RCMP, the ignorance by RCMP of our murdered and missing women; and the heavy-handed repression of our protests to protect our lands. The symbolism in this meeting reflected our lived realities — but not in a good way.

I found it particularly interesting that the very symbolic gift exchange at the gathering showed First Nations presenting Canada with a wampum belt of peace, while Canada presented First Nations with a reproduction of a painting depicting the War of 1812. We extend our hand in peace and Canada asserts its dominance with a picture of war, death and military domination. A war which was at its most basic, a battle between foreigners over our territories resulting in the loss of lives of many thousands of First Nations peoples living on both sides of the imaginary border between what is now Canada and the U.S. This picture represents the loss of land, the division of our Nations which straddle the border, the brutal control of European powers and the many treaty promises which would be broken afterwards.

Throughout history, First Nations have always been the ones to extend their hands in peace and sharing. From feeding and sheltering the first explorers during our harsh winters, to showing early settlers how to survive our harsh winters, our people were generous, empathetic but also politically strategic. It is much easier to negotiate treaties with groups you have befriended — at least that was the case with treaties between Indigenous Nations. This is why we continue to extend a hand in peace by offering the wampum belt. Yet, despite how many times we extend our hand in peace, Canada strikes with an act of war. This exchange of a wampum belt for a picture of war is symbolic of our lived realities.

In case any of you think I may have taken my father’s advice too seriously and am reading way too much into the symbolism of the event, one need only read the speeches of PM Harper and NC Atleo and then compare that to the Joint Action Plan issued by Canada and the AFN to see what I mean. Harper’s speech took many shots across the bow of our canoes which were not returned when Atleo gave his speech. Harper talked about getting rid of our “incentives” (a.k.a. benefits) and promoting “individuals” (a.k.a. breaking up communities). Instead of returning fire, Atleo gave a speech written for his upcoming election in July 2012, ignoring Harper’s speech and using appealing words like “treaty rights” and “inherent rights.”

Harper spoke of keeping the Indian Act and Atleo spoke of getting rid of it. Harper focused on a legislative agenda of more imposed legislation related to water, education, matrimonial real property and reserve privatization, while Atleo focused on how to appeal to his voters. Each with their own agenda, neither focused on the grassroots First Nations peoples. There was no mention of the need for an emergency plan to deal with the crisis of poverty caused by the chronic underfunding in First Nations like Attawapiskat, Pikangikum and Kashechewan, by either Harper or Atleo. The two missed the whole reason why the meeting was called to begin with — a major misstep for Atleo.

As some commentators immediately jumped on the content of Atleo’s speech as hitting all the right notes and being just what was needed, I waited for the Joint Action Plan. Words can be inspiring, but also deceiving. As important as symbolism may be, the grassroots people need REAL commitment and action on their behalf. Sadly, we would all be disappointed when we read the Joint Action Plan. The plan read like a playbook based on Harper’s speech. The assimilation plan of the 1969 White Paper which is also reflected in Flanagan’s two books, is now being promoted under the guise of “individual opportunity.” What is worse, is that Atleo signed on to this plan fulfilling Flanagan’s and Conservative visions of “voluntary” assimilation.

All you need to be able to read between the lines is to understand their use of code words like “individual opportunity” (destroy communities), “solution to Canada’s labour woes” (we are their labour pool), “unlocking the potential of First Nation lands” (transfer to non-Indians) and “maximizing benefits for all Canadians” (Canada gets rich off our remaining lands and resource). Try reading the two speeches again, and see if you don’t see how similar this is to Flanagan’s, Manny’s or the Conservatives’ assimilation plans.

This “Joint Plan” is the beginning of the end if we let it happen. Clearly, the AFN has crossed the line and no longer works on our behalf. Atleo now belongs in the same category as Brazeau. I wish I knew how and why the AFN fell so far so fast, but what matters is what we do as grassroots people to make sure our leaders take action. Some people have told them me that I should also look at all the political coincidences at play here. One member told me Minister Duncan was married to a relative of Atleo’s who came from the same community of Ahousat. Another reminded me about the APTN report that highlighted Atleo’s alleged involvement in the Bruce Carson scandal (think First Nation water crisis and lucrative contracts).

I don’t know about all of that, but what I do know is that not only does Atleo need to go, but all those at the top at AFN who support this plan also need to go. We need a shake-up at the AFN if they ever hope to save themselves as a national organization that is relevant to grassroots First Nations. The AFN has even lost the confidence of a growing number of First Nations Chiefs and regional organizations and these cracks will continue to grow unless they replace Atleo in July. We can’t just replace Atleo with another self-interested, right-leaning political wanna-be — we need someone who will inspire the grassroots people and reunite our leaders against the biggest threat to our sovereignty in many years — the Harper majority government.

This gathering was not about partnership, it was about our voluntary assimilation. Once we let that happen, there is no going back. Once our lands are turned over the third parties, we’ll never get them back — just ask the First Nations in the U.S. Once we allow non-Indians to occupy our homes on reserve, we’ll never get them back. If we allow Canada to transfer liability for water and sewer to us without any funding, we’ll never undo that law. If we give up our power now in exchange for Senate seats, organizational funding and photo ops, there is no negotiating it back. The time for niceties, politicking, and shaking hands is over. Our people are being jailed, beaten, murdered and missing, getting less education, food, water and housing, and dying pre-mature deaths — it’s time to do something about it.


Pamela Palmater

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson...