By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
GATINEAU, Que.-Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is interested in a formal meeting with First Nations leaders and has asked his office to engage in discussions with the country’s main First Nations organization on a wide-ranging reform package to overhaul governance and economic development.
Harper has asked Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo direct his officials to work with the Prime Minister’s Office and the office of Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan to explore the possibility of the meeting.
“With respect to the proposed Crown-First Nations gathering, I remain open to participating and I ask that you work with my office and Minister Duncan’s office to assess the viability of such an event,” said Harper, in a Dec. 8 letter to Atleo.
Harper’s willingness to participate in the meeting, which Atleo had called for, reveals how much headway the AFN national chief has made with the Conservative government.
Harper’s letter follows an Oct. 28 meeting with Atleo, where the prime minister pledged his support for improving reserve education and the AFN’s involvement in a process to improve schools and teaching quality for First Nations students.
Harper’s direct involvement on the education file also seems to heighten the likelihood the recently appointed blue-ribbon panel commissioned to study education may lead to concrete reforms.
There has been some concern from chiefs at the AFN’s special assembly in Gatineau, Que., who worry the panel is just a rerun of previous government-initiated studies that led to nowhere.
Former Liberal Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault created a committee in 2002 with representatives from the provinces, universities and First Nations education organizations to study First Nations education. The report, however, led to little if any action and continues to gather dust.
The AFN also undertook a multimillion dollar study in the 1980s on education.
Harper has also directed officials in the PMO and the Privy Council Office, the central department in government, to work with Indian Affairs and the AFN on a wide-ranging reform package on governance and economic development.
“I appreciate the vision being proposed,” said Harper, in the letter. “There are a number of considerations to take into account when examining fundamental reform of this nature. Given this complexity, I reiterate my commitment from our…meeting to have officials…meet to discuss the scope of your reform proposal.”
Harper’s letter seems to confirm some of the speculation among observers that Atleo had managed to create a direct link in the PMO to push his agenda through.
There is a widespread belief among those involved in First Nations politics that Indian Affairs officials pose some of the strongest resistance within government to major reforms.
The letter also shows that Harper has taken a personal involvement in First Nations issues.