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Education reform trumps property rights in first-nations talks with Tories

The Conservative government is making education reform the dominant priority in native affairs in 2013, at the expense of reforms to property rights.

But although the confluence of a hunger strike and the aboriginal-rights movement known as Idle No More may have limited the scope of Stephen Harper's native-issues agenda, it will have little impact on his broader national mandate as Prime Minister.

"The research suggests that Canadians still consider the economy and jobs as a top national issue of concern," pollster Nik Nanos said Sunday.

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That focus, and the unfocused nature of Idle No More, will impair the ability of the protests to influence change.

When the Prime Minister meets with native leaders Friday, he is expected to affirm an offer to create a joint government-native working group on how Ottawa is implementing its treaty obligations, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mr. Harper will also commit to moving forward with a First Nations Education Act that would, on a voluntary basis, consolidate band schools into native-run school boards. The boards would pool resources, teachers and principals, allocate capital spending and develop a native-centric curriculum in accordance with provincial standards.

The Assembly of First Nations has withdrawn its initial support for the act, citing lack of consultation. The government official, while insisting consultation has been continuing, said that Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan will work with first nations leaders as the bill is drafted in the coming months. The draft legislation will then be shared with first nations communities across the country, before finally being introduced into the House of Commons, possibly in the autumn.

The Conservatives are committed to having the legislation passed by the fall of 2014.

The government also indicated last summer that it had plans to introduce legislation making it possible for natives to own their own property on reserves. But given the importance that the government attaches to the education reform bill, and the resistance of the chiefs stoked by Idle No More, property-rights reform has become a reform too far, at least for now.

Idle No More is, of course, about far more than preventing future legislation. In the words of its designated spokeswoman, Pam Palmater, the movement seeks to reverse "Harper's assimilatory legislative agenda" and his "destructive environmental agenda," as she posted on Rabble.ca on Jan. 4.

And while Idle No More – first launched late last year by four native women in Saskatchewan and fuelled by social media and the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence – claims no leadership or any other hierarchy, politics lurks in the background, as always.

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Ms. Palmater, a Mi'kmaq from New Brunswick, is currently Chair in Indigenous Governance at Toronto's Ryerson University.

She ran – strongly, if unsuccessfully – against Shawn Atleo for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations last July. In her Jan. 4 post, Ms. Palmater maintained that Mr. Harper decided "to use the Assembly of First Nations as his primary vehicle to call all the shots … Harper managed to bully his assimilation plan onto the First Nation agenda with hardly a squeak of opposition at the political level."

There are obvious tensions between the Idle No More movement, as represented by Ms. Palmater, and the chiefs of the Assembly, as represented by Mr. Atleo. And although Ms. Spence will be at Friday's meeting, that meeting will be between the Prime Minister and the chiefs, not the activists of Idle No More, which will be staging events across the country that day.

Given the tensions within and between the native leadership and activists, it's easy to understand why the Conservatives have decided to focus on limiting the future agenda to education reform.

Even at that, many chiefs may be unwilling to co-operate with a government that is now, in the eyes of many natives, simply the enemy.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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