The next few weeks are shaping up as a crucial test of the strained relationship between the Conservative government and the Assembly of First Nations. At a special AFN conference last week, held at a casino hotel in Gatineau, Que., National Chief Phil Fontaine seemed to try to leverage the threat of native militancy without sacrificing political legitimacy. It wasn’t clear he succeeded. A call from the chiefs he leads for railways to shut down on June 29, designated
a “day of action” by the AFN, was rejected by rail companies and criticized by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.
Fontaine denied the AFN was tacitiy endorsing blockades by disgruntled natives, but he sounded sympathetic. “Our people look around and see the good life being lived by others, and they ask, ‘Why are we so poor?’ ” he said in an interview. “Frustration leads to anger.” It might ease the tension if Fontaine and Prentice could show some ability to work together, and their best chance could be overhauling the system for settling hundreds of backlogged First Nations’ land claims. An AFN official said the two men are expected to meet “several times” between now and June 29 to discuss a speedier process.
But if land claims reform would be welcome, it would hardly be a panacea. The biggest-ever land claim deal was struck between Ottawa and the Inuit of the eastern Arctic before the creation of Nunavut in 1999, but remote communities in the territory continue to be plagued by joblessness, addiction and suicide. Still, a new process would be something, possibly even the start of a thaw in the chill that set in when the Tories cancelled the Liberals’ $5-billion plan for Aboriginal development. “I don’t blame Minister Prentice,” Fontaine was careful to note about the scrapping of the so-called Kelowna agreement—a signal, perhaps, that there’s still a chance to talk. M
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