First Nations chief defines high stakes for winter summit

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is laying out exactly what it expects from a high-stakes summit with the prime minister this winter.

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations is laying out exactly what it expects from a high-stakes summit with the prime minister this winter.

First Nations want to “fundamentally reset the relationship” with the federal government and that means more autonomy for band leaders and an arrangement to provide enough money to improve conditions on reserves, says National Chief Shawn Atleo.

In preparing for a long-planned meeting between First Nations chiefs and Stephen Harper, Atleo hopes to set the principles at the summit and follow that up with provisions in the next federal budget.

He and other native leaders are holding up to 100 meetings with parliamentarians, delivering a tough message that they need major changes and major funding if aboriginal communities are ever going to break the cycle of poverty, poor health and spotty education.

The summit will likely be in December or January, before the next budget.

AFN officials say they won’t bargain for dollars and cents at the summit. Instead, they want to use the meeting to negotiate principles to define the relationship between First Nations governments and Ottawa.

But they do have their eye on the coming budget. Their wish-list includes:

— Providing about $2 billion a year for education, to bring funding up to par with other Canadian children.

— Building 40 new schools at a cost of $12.5 million each.

— Constructing 85,000 new housing units at a cost of about $150,000 each or more if they are built on unserviced lots.

— Developing a plan to cover the $7-billion needed to make drinking water in First Nations communities safe.

— Committing $805 million to pay for non-insured health benefits such as dental, pharmacy and medical supplies.

Discussions about a First Nations summit began last winter after Harper agreed to a meeting in a letter to the assembly. Since then, behind-the-scenes work on an agenda has produced an agreement to focus on education, governance and economic development.

Atleo said the federal government has a habit of delivering narrowly focused policy prescriptions and it’s time to break the pattern.

“I’m hopeful that we can bring that strong message to the prime minister and encourage him to be the prime minister in the history of this country who finally, meaningfully, builds on the work that prime minister Paul Martin did, and we can move towards the real changes required.”

Atleo says he is well aware of the government’s deficit-reduction focus, but will pursue his agenda anyway.

“The money wasn’t there when governments were in a spending mood,” he said. “The money wasn’t there when the economy was strong and the budget coffers were full. So I don’t think this stands on its own as enough of a reason to not look to address the challenges.”

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s office referred questions to the Prime Minister’s Office, where officials said they had no comment at this time.

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