(Prime Minister Stephen Harper and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo inside the prime minister’s Parliament Hill office on Dec. 1 APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to leave by lunch time during next Tuesday’s meeting with hundreds of First Nations leaders in Ottawa, according to chiefs in Ontario and British Columbia.
In interviews with APTN National News, chiefs said they have been notified that Harper may not be attending any of the post-ceremony meetings where First Nations leaders are expected to voice their concerns and priorities for changing the often desperate state of Indigenous communities across the country.
Chiefs, however, said details of the gathering seem to be changing almost every hour.
Harper will be present for the opening ceremonies and speeches, one of which he will deliver.
Chiefs have been told that the prime minister may have to leave early to either prepare or take a flight to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which begins Wednesday.
Harper called next Tuesday’s gathering with First Nations leaders “historic” when he announced the event in December as political fallout from the Attawapiskat housing crisis was reaching its climax.
“It is something I hope to be historic,” said Harper, who announced the event in his Parliament Hill office with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo sitting next to him.
Several cabinet ministers, including Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, are expected to attend. But the chance to have Harper hear directly from and respond to First Nations chiefs was the centerpiece of the event.
The prime minister was personally urged Monday in a telephone conversation with Atleo to “maximize his time” with First Nations leaders on Tuesday, APTN National News has learned.
Some chiefs had also suggested the prime minister meet with some First Nations leaders separately Monday evening to hear their issues, but the Prime Minister’s Office has been reluctant to agree fearing it could turn into a “media circus” once word got out, according to a source with knowledge of the file.
The PMO will only say that Harper’s itinerary would be set 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
“The Prime Minister looks forward to attending next week’s gathering and addressing and engaging with Chiefs from First Nations across Canada,” said a statement from the PMO. “The government, which will also be represented at the gathering by several ministers and high-level officials, welcomes the opportunity for a constructive dialogue with First Nations and to identify the ways we can make progress on key issues like economic development, education, and accountability.”
Harper’s expected departure midway through the Crown-First Nations gathering has left some First Nation leaders wondering about the point of the meeting.
“We are deeply disappointed to hear the prime minister will be ducking out the back door within a couple of hours after this session begins,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “I think in many ways it reflects his dismissive attitude towards the Aboriginal people in this country.”
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said he hoped that Harper would find the time to hear directly from chiefs either on Tuesday, or at an eventual meeting between First Nations leaders, premiers and the prime minister.
Madahbee said chiefs were hoping that Harper and his cabinet ministers would agree to a time-table that would see concrete changes within six to 18 months.
“We need to get some traction on issues,” said Madahbee, whose organization represents 39 Ontario First Nations. “There is a young generation of people who are getting more and more impatient, that want to get results and actions. We have been telling the government to deal with the leadership or deal with what could get out of hand.”
Madahbee said the preparation for the meeting has been “11th hour” and “on the fly” with uncertainty even surrounding how many actual chiefs will be in the room at Ottawa’s old city hall building for the actual meetings, or in an overflow room at the Chateau Laurier blocks away.
“It is kind of unfortunate the planning process with this government,” he said.
About 400 chiefs are expected to descend on Ottawa Tuesday and the AFN says they hope to get at least 200 chiefs in for the actual meetings, while the rest would watch it on video screens.
There has also been disappointment among some chiefs over Harper’s plan to deliver a speech focused on his government’s commitments and plans, said Phillip.
Phillip said many chiefs were hoping Harper would stay and listen to their concerns, and then respond to what he heard at the end of the gathering.
“The idea was that at the end of the day, there would be an opportunity to reflect on what was said and what his government heard. That would be the high point of this historic dialogue with the prime minister,” said Phillip. “Now we find out that it is not going to happen.”
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon said he was going to take a wait and see approach to the meeting, but he hoped chiefs would find a way to stick together to force the government’s hand with Harper present or not.
“We know it is going to be a challenge to deal with the Harper government. We are not sure if the chiefs will stick together,” he said. “We will probably see cracks again within the ranks of the chiefs…We are hoping the chiefs are going to see the urgency of unifying under one position and stick to that, regardless of what happens.”