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The Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa was a classic example of a failure to communicate.
Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo recognized the history of Canada’s relations with its First Nations as a register of crimes and misfortunes. Both paid lip-service to the idea of unlocking the potential of aboriginal Canadians.
But they talked past each other when it came to moving forward. The Prime Minister said he has learned from the past but wants to focus on the future. Mr. Atleo spent most of his speech re-fighting old battles by pointing out how Canada has failed to live up to its treaty obligations.
Mr. Harper is likely the most pragmatic leader this country has seen since Sir John A. Macdonald, and his interest is in practical solutions that can have impact on the ground.
He has little interest in being diverted into what he called the “talk shop” that has bogged down governance issues for decades.
“Our goal is self-sufficient citizens and self-governing communities,” he said. He offered no “grand schemes” to achieve those ends, but promised “practical, incremental and real change” by introducing new legislation and procedures.
“To move forward, to reset the relationship, [we must] learn from the past but focus on the future,” he said.
For his part, the National Chief has made great strides in shifting the orthodoxies of the Assembly of First Nation toward concrete, achievable goals — it seems highly likely his call for “sustainable, equitable services, based on mutually agreed standards and shared responsibility” will come to fruition, in the form of a First Nations Education Act.
But even he is fixated on a solution that would clearly result in endless constitutional wrangling.
For Mr. Atleo and too many of the chiefs, it’s all about the airing of historic grievances — the implementation of treaty rights and the inherent right to self-government. In First Nations’ eyes this means new agreements on division of jurisdictional powers and fresh legislation under the Constitution Act.
All the chiefs talk this language of lament.
Chief Stan Beardy, who represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, said he “wants a fundamental discussion with Canada.”
“In a treaty 100 years ago, we agreed to peaceful co-existence and agreed to share the benefits from our lands. We didn’t give up the title on our lands or the right to govern ourselves.”
He at least acknowledges resource revenue-sharing agreements with Ottawa and the provinces would be a more practical solution that would create jobs and wealth.
Part of the problem is that those calling loudest for an end to federal paternalism are complicit in the system.
The meeting in Ottawa brought together a class of laptop-carrying, cellphone-wielding native rent-seekers who mirror the public servants in their use of bureaucratic babble. For them, taking the debate all the way back to the 1763 Royal Proclamation Act is progress.
One native executive was handing out booklets with pictures showing First Nations children living in insulated shacks heated by wood stoves.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/24/john-ivison-pragmatic-pm-looks-ahead-as-chiefs-air-old-grievances/