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Harper, chiefs at odds over fate of the Indian Act

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations' leaders are at odds over the future of the Indian Act.

Harper sees it as something that can be updated to reflect modern practices.

But Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, led a parade of speakers who described the century-old legislation as a boulder blocking the path to collaboration.

They laid out their views in back-to-back speeches Tuesday during a major meeting of First Nations leaders and government ministers and officials.

The Indian Act, first passed in 1876, gave Ottawa exclusive jurisdiction over "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians." The legislation, which was last amended in 2000, defines who is recognized among First Nations and sets out rules on everything from how reserves operate to the effect of marriage on status.

Harper conceded that the act led to problems over the years, but the government has no plans to repeal the legislation.

"After 136 years, that tree has deep roots," he said. "Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole.

"However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our government, the provinces and First Nations leadership and communities, ways that provide options within the act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change."

Atleo was just the first of several native speakers who bitterly condemned the act.

"Built on the disgraceful premise of our inferiority, aimed at assimilation and the destruction of our cultures, it was a complete abrogation of the partnership between respectful nations," said Atleo.

"Largely unchanged, it remains a painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful partnership."

Atleo said the act produced the reserve system and the hated residential schools that scarred generations of natives.

"This legislation has utterly failed our people and failed Canada."

He said it is time "to undo the damage that act has inflicted on our peoples."

Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of British Columbia, followed with a fiery denunciation aimed straight at the prime minister seated in the front row before the dais.

Calling the Indian Act "an act of neo-colonialism," she said Canada's natives require "core governance reform."

"When we do, the Indian Act tree will topple over. No gaping hole, Mr. Prime Minister, but strong and self-determining First Nations," she said to loud applause.

Ovide Mercredi, a former national chief, also tossed Harper's words back, saying the act "is not just a big hole, it's an obstacle."

"Our treaties should govern our relationship with Canada, not the Indian Act," said Mercredi, who suggested First Nations return to Britain for redress of historic legal contracts made by the Crown.

The spirit of tradition and treaty obligations infused the meeting, which opened with drums, chants, prayers and a smudge ceremony.

A historic wampum belt — a replica of the 1764 Treaty of Niagara belt — was used for the first time in centuries to signify the re-binding of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.

Sewn from 10,076 purple and silver shells, the belt symbolizes the link forged between First Nations and the Crown in the year following the 1763 Royal Proclamation that defined the relationship between the two sides.

Harper spoke of the need to build trust and respect. He pledged to empower First Nations.

"The greatest respect that we can show to First Nations men and women is to provide them with the tools, to credit them with the capacity and then allow them to move forward," he said. "We all need to move forward. So let us be willing partners."

The audience, made up largely of chiefs and elders, whooped their support for Atleo's speech, but gave Harper a muted response.

The day-long meeting involves native leaders, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants.

The chiefs hope their talks with Harper and senior officials can produce a two-track approach to deliver both short-term fixes for immediate crises and progress toward a fundamentally different long-term relationship within 12 to 18 months.

Immediate challenges could include inadequate funding for housing, child welfare, education and water.

Long-term issues include crafting a pathway to self-governance and recognition of treaty rights, a more reliable fiscal framework, economic development, financial transparency and speeding up talks on comprehensive land claims.

Among other items, chiefs and federal politicians are widely expected to endorse a plan for legislation to give native communities the power to set up their own school boards, and to change the structure of government financing so that it's more predictable.

For more from the Canadian Press scroll down The Tyee's main page or click here.

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