By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–First Nations leaders will be listening closely to the words Prime Minister Stephen Harper chooses in his speech at the Crown-First Nations gathering Tuesday after he left chiefs feeling underwhelmed by his response to their presentations during a special, two-and-a-half hour meeting with a delegation Monday.
Harper told chiefs that they should consider contacting their MPs and that he can’t just focus on Aboriginal issues because he has to run the country, according to three chiefs who were present at the meeting.
His comments left chiefs concerned the prime minister was not taking their issues seriously.
“To hear the prime minister make reference to the number of issues he is dealing with raises questions in my mind and those questions will need to be answered in his words tomorrow to First Nations,” said Serpent River Chief Isadore Day. “Tomorrow will be a very good indication of where the prime minister is in his resolve, or lack thereof, to deal with First Nations issues.”
Grand Chief Ghislain Picard, who heads the Assembly of First Nations Quebec wing, said it was surprising to hear Harper tell chiefs that they should consider contacting their local MPs.
“It is kind of funny coming from him that these would be the channels when it’s exactly what we’ve done for the past six years to build some pressure on this government,” said Picard. “Are we going to be back on square one? It’s going to be a waste of time, this week in Ottawa.”
The meeting with Harper, which according to chiefs was agreed to at the 11th hour, did alleviate some of the anger and disappointment over the prime minister’s plan to leave Tuesday’s “historic” gathering early.
When Harper announced the event in December, he said he hoped it would be “historic.”
The Prime Minister’s Office agreed to a meeting with limited number of delegates from each region. The parties met in a boardroom in the Langevin building, across from Parliament Hill, which houses Harper’s main office. The meeting ran from about 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. local time.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said there were about 45 people in the room, including chiefs, elders, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and his Parliamentary Secretary Greg Rickford.
Harper opened the meeting saying he was there to listen.
“I was extremely proud of some of the profoundly powerful statements made by some of the elders, grand chiefs and regional chiefs that were in the room,” said Phillip. “In the end we waited for the response from the prime minister, which was very, very brief, almost disappointingly brief.”
Phillip said the prime minister basically told chiefs that he couldn’t just focus on their issues because he had to run the country.
“He did make a point of saying basically that, as the prime minister of Canada, he had many, many other issues. He talked about the great responsibility and many interests on this ‘great ship of state’ as he described the country,” said Phillip. “Quite astonishingly…at the very end he was recommending we go home and talk to our MPs.”
Phillip said most of the delegates were consistent in their call for a series of first ministers meeting, or some kind of similar, high-level process, to deal with issues of dire poverty, treaty and land rights once and for all.
Now, chiefs will wait to hear what the prime minister says in his speech Tuesday and what gets accomplished during sessions with cabinet ministers to gauge what to do next. They’ll either continue negotiating or take their issues to the streets.
“After all of that takes place, there is going to be reflection from the delegates,” said Phillip. “There is an incredibly high level of frustration and anger and resentment that has been expressed by our elders, our traditional leaders, grand chiefs, and chiefs.”