Meeting in peril
IF today’s scheduled meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders does not occur, it will not be for lack of trying. Harper was forced to agree to the meeting on aboriginal concerns by the growing Idle No More movement and by the unfolding saga of the embattled Chief of Attawapiskat who is on a form of hunger strike within sight of Parliament.
For any prime minister to be forced to capitulate in this way, on such short notice, is rare; for this Prime Minister it is unheard of. Having agreed to a meeting (his office is careful to say it was arranged by the Assembly of First Nations) Harper now finds the ground shifting.
Chief Theresa Spence originally demanded a face-to-face meeting with Harper and Governor General David Johnston as the representative of the Crown with which treaties were signed. Since then she has seemed to soften her stance. At one point in her four-week food fast she indicated that she need not attend the meeting involving national and regional chiefs. But when Johnston said this week he will not attend, Spence urged the other chiefs to join her in a boycott.
Official Ottawa quickly arranged a post-meeting event at Rideau Hall hosted by Johnston. But chiefs insist he be at the meeting.
Chiefs were also annoyed to learn that Harper, who has reportedly tried to limit the number of participants at the meeting that threatens to overwhelm the room, will apparently be there only at the start and the end of the session, leaving it to his Aboriginal Affairs and other ministers to conduct the business of the day.
This is a classic clash of cultures that typifies many failed meetings between Aboriginals and non-aboriginals. First Nations place much emphasis on giving each person at gatherings a chance to speak. To interrupt, or to leave before talks are completed, is considered disrespectful.
Many First Nations leaders have taken their causes to London to present their grievances, if not directly to Queen Elizabeth, then to her representatives at Buckingham Palace. The Queen has always been anxious to meet Canada’s indigenous leaders when she visits this country and she is held in high esteem among them and their people.
Ottawa’s response to the demand that Johnston, the Queen’s representative in Canada, attend the meeting is that governors-general do not usually get involved in the day-to-day business of Parliament, and courts have determined that the treaty obligations the Crown entered into were passed to the government at Confederation. It appears that First Nations take the formal interpretation of Johnston’s position as Queen’s representive more seriously than the government, which may have advised Johnston to avoid the meeting.
Surely Harper can stick around longer and Johnston can put in an appearance to assure participants the Crown in Canada is actively interested. The meeting is to agree on broad issues anyway. Building the framework will come later.