OTTAWA — The federal government and First Nations have set a course for future discussions at the conclusion of talks in Ottawa.
In a joint statement, the two sides acknowledged their relationship has been fraught with problems.
“Unfortunately, there have been low points in our relationship. A series of misguided and harmful government policies in our past has shaken First Nations confidence in our relationship,” said the statement.
“We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them and affirm that they will not be repeated.”
The Conservative government and First Nations chiefs from across Canada have agreed to set up a working group to review the structure of financial arrangements and also to set up a task force within three months on economic development.
They’ve pledged to report back in one year’s time on the progress they’ve made overall.
It had been unclear whether the two sides would be able to reach consensus.
The lead-up to the long-awaited meetings in Ottawa had been fraught with tension, with the chiefs looking for concrete commitments and the government suggesting a more incremental approach.
The day began in apparent conflict over the Indian Act, but the two sides managed to close the gap by agreeing that while it can’t be immediately repealed, it can be modernized.
“We have both identified the Indian Act as an obstacle,” Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a speech to several hundred chiefs and delegates.
Atleo, who earlier in the day led a parade of native speakers pillorying the act, appeared to extend an olive branch to the prime minister by stating it “cannot be replaced overnight.”
“We will arrive at a day where the Indian Act is simply obsolete, a relic of the past,” said Atleo.
“And we can do it. The proof is that some First Nations are already there.”
The Indian Act legislation, which was last amended in 2000, defines who is recognized among First Nations and sets out rules on everything from how reserves operate to the effect of marriage on status.
Harper told the gathering the act can be updated to reflect modern practices.
Harper conceded that the act led to problems over the years, but the government has no plans to repeal the legislation.
“After 136 years, that tree has deep roots,” he said. “Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole.
“However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our government, the provinces and First Nations leadership and communities, ways that provide options within the act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.”
Though there had been fears the prime minister would beat a hasty retreat from Tuesday’s meetings, he stayed throughout the day and was seated front row centre for the closing speeches.
Peter Penashue, Harper’s minister of intergovernmental affairs and himself native, spoke of a shared vision for a future of prosperous and strong First Nations.
“What we have accomplished today will help us realize this vision,” said Penashue.
He added that “the key to unlocking the potential of First Nations is finding ways to enable First Nations to leverage the inherent value of their lands.”
Chiefs speaking with reporters after the morning session had said the main issue wasn’t the Indian Act.
It’s about the process, said Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.
“To me, if I look at the six previous years with this government, in many ways what we’ve inherited at the outset of this meeting is a situation where this government has imposed many bills …,” he said.
“And if that’s the approach we’re considering in renewing this relationship, then we’re on false tracks.”
But in the joint statement, the two sides committed to moving forward together.
“As partners in the Crown-First Nations gathering, we will maintain the relationship through an ongoing dialogue that outlines clear goals and measures of progress and success,” the statement said.