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Erasmus not at meeting with PM
Aboriginal leaders call for 'high-level working process'

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 14, 2013

Bill Erasmus, Dene National Chief and Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for the Northwest Territories, did not meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Jan. 11.

NNSL photo/graphic

Bill Erasmus: Not clear why he did not participate in the meeting.

Harper was scheduled to sit down with First Nations leaders to discuss treaty rights, environmental concerns and development, according to the PM's website.

The meeting came after a month-long hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who hasn't eaten solid food since Dec. 11.

Spence's strike aimed to push for a meeting between Harper, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and aboriginal leaders.

Johnston was scheduled to meet with leaders at a "ceremonial" meeting following the meeting with the prime minister.

Spence and many other First Nations leaders refused to participate in the meeting with Harper unless Johnston was present.

As of press time, it was unclear why Erasmus did not participate in the meeting.

Late on Friday, the Assembly of First Nations issued a statement outlining eight actions it said the federal government needs to implement immediately.

The actions include a "high-level working process" to establish and enforce treaties, revenue sharing and that all legislation must follow section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act - the section that protects aboriginal and treaty rights.

Whati Chief Alfonz Nitsiza said he hopes the meeting won't be the last.

"My hope is that they will set up a working group, perhaps to get out more information as to what we can really get done and set up meetings in the near future to kind of have a process," Nitsiza said. "Develop a process where we can develop a respectful way of resolving issues. "I think a one-day meeting between nations is not a long time to really iron out the issues that we want to address," he said.

The Idle No More movement, which is a separate entity from Spence's strike and from the AFN, is also aiming to make change.

The movement was initiated by four women in Saskatchewan in response to the Harper government's omnibus budget bills C-45 and C-38.

"All four women knew that this was a time to act, as this bill and other proposed legislation would affect not only indigenous people but also the lands, water and the rest of Canada," the Idle No More website states.

Critics say the bills pave the way for development while compromising environmental regulations.

The AFN said the bills are a direct violation of Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act.

In October, NWT MP Dennis Bevington distributed a document explaining what the bills mean for Northerners. The document, titled Omnibus Budget Bill C-38 Implications for Canada's North, states that amendments to the Species at Risk Act mean pipeline projects no longer have to protect at-risk species or their habitats.

It also states that environmental assessments will be fast-tracked and their scopes will change to exclude groups not "directly affected" by development projects. This could mean that communities not located in the immediate area of a project could be excluded from project reviews, even if the community is located downstream, the document stated.

Nitsiza said he isn't against development, but First Nations need to be included in the decision-making process.

"We want to be at the table with the federal government," he said. "That's what it's all about."

Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations, Herb Norwegian, said he agreed.

"We want to be able to be major players in the development of our territories, even be part of the extraction of resources and making sure we benefit," he said. "They want the resources, we want to be a part of that."

Trust between the federal government and First Nations is vital, Norwegian added.

"The partner is trying to take over the house that we live in and that's not the way it was set out a long time ago," he said. "We were both partners and that whole partnership needs to be revisited."

Norwegian said he believes that rather than having a "shopping list" of concerns, First Nations leaders need to outline specific issues to discuss with the federal government in future meetings. He said topics of concern for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal citizens need to be outlined.

"You need to pull one particular issue that affects every person throughout Canada and try to get some resolution," he said. "I think it's important to put something forward that is going to be meaningful and people are able to stand firm on."

Getting information about the issues is part of the reason why Nellie Norwegian said she organized a recent Idle No More protest of her own. More than 100 people blocked the newly opened Deh Cho Bridge on Jan. 5.

Norwegian said in addition to showing support for Spence, the blockade aimed to share information about Idle No More and the issues affecting First Nations people and Canadians.

"Most elders don't know what's going on," she said. "A lot of people here don't have TV."

Norwegian said one of the primary concerns about bills C-45 and C-38 are the changes to environmental legislation and water protection.

"It not only affects the aboriginal population, it affects the whole of Canada," she said.

She said she also wants last week's meeting to be the first of a series of "ongoing consultation."

Norwegian said, most importantly, she believes the federal government needs to include First Nations leaders in decisions.

"The government needs to sit down with the people and consult before they make legislations," she said.

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