It promised to be more than a photo op.
This week’s Crown-First Nation Gathering between the federal government and the country’s chiefs was billed as a meeting of historic significance, a meeting to “reset” their often rocky relationship.
Even though it sounded a bit simplistic, given the complexity of the problems plaguing First Nations, it was hard to resist the temptation of hope that it offered.
Had Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally decided to get serious about the multitude of issues – poverty, hunger, education, violence, substance abuse and lack of economic opportunities?
If that was true, it certainly would mark a milestone.
Wouldn’t it be great if nobody in Canada had to live in Third World conditions?
So this gathering was a big step, and one with lots of potential.
It was the first time Harper had such a meeting with the chiefs since he came to power in 2006 and killed the Kelowna Accord.
He said he planned to take a different approach.
Two years later, he apologized for the catastrophic residential school system, offered money to its survivors and launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to put the issue to rest once and for all.
And while those gestures were lauded, when it came to the harder work of improving life for First Nations across the country, his government seemed to stall out.
Until he announced this meeting.
But before anyone could get too excited about it, he rattled the trust by making it known he didn’t plan to stay for much of the one-day event. He’d be there for the photogenic opening ceremony and give his speech, but then he was off to meet world leaders in Europe.
Many of the chiefs were understandably taken aback. One said it was like being invited to dinner, only to find out the host planned to split after the appetizers.
And it would have been had Harper not relented at the last minute, granted the chiefs a bit more “face time” and poured a few more platitudes into his address.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo graciously accepted it all, including the shaky offer of hope.
But he also made it clear, this time they expected that hope to be backed up with action.
“Today must mark the beginning of renewal – the beginning of realizing our shared potential foretold in the visions of our ancestors,” said Atleo.
“But the proof of our commitment will begin tomorrow, and in the weeks and months ahead, demonstration that this time this generation of leaders, will not fail to make the changes we all know are urgently needed.”
Well, tomorrow has arrived, the monumental meeting has dropped to the bottom of the news agenda, and the prime minister is now comfortably seated at his next photo-op, the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
Just say, cheese.