New talks aim to defuse Canada natives row

11th January 2013, Comments 0 comments

Queen Elizabeth II's representative in Canada has invited native chiefs to a meeting at his residence on Friday to shore up talks aimed at resolving a row over squalid living conditions on reserves.

The move, by Governor General David Johnston, was seen as a bid to save parallel talks between the chiefs and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which were in danger of unraveling due to a threatened boycott.

The "ceremonial meeting" at Rideau Hall, the official residence of the queen's representative, will take place after the chiefs have seen Harper.

Harper agreed to demands for emergency talks to discuss treaty rights and ways to raise living standards on reserves after a four-week hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence put a spotlight on their plight.

Spence, earlier this week, said she was backing out of the scheduled talks with Harper and a delegation of native chiefs from Manitoba province followed suit on Thursday.

Spence had been pushing for Johnston to attend the Harper meeting. It was unclear if the governor general's separate invitation meant the chiefs would now reverse their boycott decision.

Johnston had originally declined to join in discussions with Spence and other aboriginal leaders, saying their plight is a political matter that must be taken up with elected officials.

Spence had said the governor general's attendance was "integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights." Canada's more than 600 indigenous reserves were created by royal proclamation in 1763.

If Spence's hunger strike continues, so too will protests and highway blockades that have exploded across Canada in recent weeks with thousands demanding their treaty rights.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo told a press conference the meeting with Harper would proceed, saying the situation for natives has reached a "tipping point" and must be addressed now.

"Our people can't wait," Atleo said.

"We have to put a stop to lurching from conflict to conflict and disappointment to disappointment," he added, saying he will seek a commitment from Harper for a "long-term process" to address native concerns.

"What we are talking about is putting in place new arrangements that reflect the original understandings of treaties" inked between aboriginals and the (British) Crown.

That could include natives getting a share of royalties from Can$650 billion in resource development planned for the coming decade, he said.

In addition to complaints of severe poverty, natives also blasted changes last month to environmental and other laws they say impact their hunting and fishing rights, and allow tribes to lease reserve lands to non-natives.

Though the government insists the latter was meant to help boost economic development, some fear it will result in a loss of native control of reserve lands and eventually lead to the end of aboriginal communities.

Tracts of land were set apart for the use and benefit of indigenous groups, and administered under centuries-old rules governing the Crown's relationship with the natives.

Many natives blame the 1876 Indian Act, which codified those rules, for a wide range of problems in their communities, saying it is overly paternalistic.

However, few want to do away with it until another framework is set up to replace it, and getting all stakeholders to agree on a new formula has so far proved an elusive goal.

"The treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands, but that is what we see," said Chief Perry Bellegarde, highlighting the overcrowded housing, high unemployment and rampant poverty on many reserves.

© 2013 AFP

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