Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised ongoing talks and a more hands-on role in managing the federal government’s relationship with First Nations people.
The pledge came after a much-anticipated three-hour meeting on Friday that included Harper, Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan, Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and 21 chiefs from across the country. Yukon regional Chief Mike Smith and Little Salmon/Carmacks Chief Eric Fairclough were there to represent the Yukon.
“While we’re pleased with the conversations that took place today, we acknowledge that there is more work to be done,” Duncan told reporters after the meeting.
To that end, Harper has promised enhanced oversight from his office and committed to more “high level” discussions with Atleo in the coming weeks.
But Duncan suggested there won’t be any changes to the government’s omnibus bills, despite them being a centerpiece of Idle No More’s concerns.
Protesters want the government to drop changes to laws such as the Navigable Waters Act and the Indian Act, asserting that First Nations were not properly consulted.
“We feel that we’re quite comfortable that we have met our constitutional obligations with those bills. We believe there is every reason to proceed,” Duncan said.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was also at Friday’s meeting.
“I thought it was very positive. I was looking forward to the meeting. I participated in the meeting last year … and almost a year to the day we met with a number of chiefs as well,” Aglukkaq said.
Across the country, thousands of Idle No More protesters took to the streets on Friday as the clock ticked down to the meeting.
In the Yukon there were protests planned at Haines Junction, Beaver Creek, Dawson and Ross River. The protests even spread across the Alaska border to Anchorage.
In Whitehorse, about 150 protesters gathered at MP Ryan Leef’s office before marching down Second Avenue to the healing totem pole beside the Yukon River.
Idle No More organizer Cherish Clarke said that while she’s happy the Ottawa meeting took place, the movement isn’t over yet.
“Idle No More is not going to stop just because the prime minister is meeting with the chiefs today in Ottawa. Today is monumental. It is the day we stood up for democracy,” Clarke told the crowd of protesters on Friday.
She repeated the movement’s concerns with the omnibus bills and the need for better environmental protection, but she also spoke about the legacy of colonialism and the damage to First Nations culture left behind by the residential school system.
“This history, the true history of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people in Canada is the largest untold history. It is not one of the past, especially when you look at how current legislation, although less barbaric on the surface, still serves the same purpose as it did in the past to assimilate and eradicate the indigenous people in Canada,” she said.
In Ottawa there was confusion Friday morning, as it remained unclear exactly which chiefs would be part of the meeting. Some chiefs from Manitoba and Ontario boycotted the meeting. At one point protesters attempted to bar the door to the prime minister’s office before the meeting began.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike and living in a teepee on Ottawa’s Victoria Island for over a month, did not attend the meeting with Harper, but did take part in a ceremonial meeting with Governor General David Johnston later in the evening.
Among those at the protest in Whitehorse was Charlene Baker, a Selkirk First Nation woman in her 40s who has been politically active her whole life. When she was 10 she protested oil and gas development in Carcross-Tagish territory. She said she has been on a parallel hunger strike for the past eight days in support of Spence.
“I decided eight days was enough because today is the day that Theresa Spence gets to meet with the prime minister and the governor general. I was fasting alongside her,” adding that if Spence continues her hunger strike, she could continue hers as well.
-with files from Pavlina Sudrich.
Contact Jesse Winter at email@example.com