Cautious optimism follows historic meeting

It was bright inside the conference room where Canada's government leaders and First Nation leaders met Tuesday, said Kluane Adamek, the Yukon's youth representative for the Assembly of First Nations.

It was bright inside the conference room where Canada’s government leaders and First Nation leaders met Tuesday, said Kluane Adamek, the Yukon’s youth representative for the Assembly of First Nations.

“It was a great day,” she said over the phone from Ottawa after the meeting adjourned.

“I think it went a lot better than people had maybe anticipated. There’s skepticism. There’s been a lack of trust for centuries, but it’s time we looked at forging this new relationship.”

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to flying off to Switzerland later Tuesday for the World Economic Forum, the assembly gathered its delegates Monday and invited Harper to meet with chiefs regionally.

“They did meet. They met with all the regions yesterday, the prime minister did,” said Adamek. “And he actually stayed until the end of the day today. Which I think was impressive. I was expecting him to leave, but he was there.”

It was expectations like those that emboldened critics and First Nation delegates, who are all too familiar with the photo-ops, handshaking and lip service that meetings like this tend to only achieve.

And despite a five-point list of imprecise but immediate steps offered by Harper, his unwillingness to abolish the Indian Act, as many First Nations demanded, may serve to prove those skeptics right.

But Adamek is optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think you can expect, in one day, really specific answers,” she said. “But I’m feeling really optimistic about it because the world’s watching. Now, more than ever, we’re in the media.

“And if I can take anything from this, I feel hopeful and I feel that there is willingness. I don’t think that, especially this Conservative government in the past, has let me feel hopeful or shown willingness to work with First Nations.”

As part of the youth delegation, Adamek was invited to a private meeting with Gov. Gen. David Johnston at Rideau Hall.

They discussed equitable opportunities and funding for education, implementing treaties and mutual respect, said Adamek.

“There’s a lot of suggestions that have been brought forward,” she said, including the call to end the two per cent cap applied in 1996 to on-reserve funding for aboriginal students.

Adamek was asked to introduce Johnston during the opening ceremonies on Tuesday, which she did in English, French, Tlingit and Southern Tutchone.

“The youth council pointed out that almost all of us introduced ourselves in our traditional language,” she said. “Our languages aren’t dying. We need to restore them. They need to be revitalized. But we’re in a different place.

“And if you think about 100 years ago, would the governor general have been OK with having 12 young First Nation people come into his house? Probably not. Even 30 years ago.”

After the introduction, Adamek took an interesting seat in the crowd, she said. Sitting directly in front of a group of ministers, she overheard them trying to figure out what “wampum” was after Johnston was given a wampum belt, a traditional symbol of agreement made of shell beads. On her other side sat an elder who stressed how long some people have waiting for this moment, where Canada would finally agree to just sit down and talk.

“Not one body can do it on its own,” Adamek said. “There’s a lot of things that we can do, but we need to work with the Crown on them. We need to be the driving force behind our own governments and the abolishment of the Indian Act, but we also need the current government to be supportive of that.”

And securing those actions are important – no matter what government is in power, Adamek added.

Adamek was part of an eight-person delegation attending the meetings on behalf of Yukon First Nations. The group included co-youth representative Isaiah Gilson; the territory’s regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, Eric Morris; Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie; and deputy Kha Shade Heni for the Carcross/Tagish First Nations, Danny Cresswell.

Because the meeting was only finalized in December, many of Yukon’s chiefs had already committed to the Mining Roundup in Vancouver.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at