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First nations leaders need to take aim at what’s achievable

Brennan Govender and his friends came all the way from the Moose Cree First Nation, on the western shore of James Bay, to a downtown Ottawa street corner Wednesday to sing and beat their drums in what organizers called a "round dance flash mob" in support of Idle No More.

"Our river is drying up … and I'm worried about the clear-cutting," he said after the event. "We have a rich land, where people hunt and fish." But Mr. Govender fears that the federal government is stripping what protections exist to preserve the land and water.

The Day of Action rallies across Canada in support of Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence's fast were peaceable, though there were blocked roads, rail lines and bridges across the country.

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But with another meeting between first nations and government leaders planned for a week or so from now, with Parliament set to return Jan. 28 and with an Ipsos Reid poll showing little public support for Idle No More, the question is what, exactly, these protests will accomplish.

In that sense, it might be helpful to look at the disparate demands of the various factions claiming to represent native Canadians living on reserve, in an effort to separate the "deliverables" from the "non-deliverables."

One key demand is that the Harper government withdraw a raft of legislation, including budget bills that have been passed, that native leaders claim weaken environmental protections and otherwise impair the lives and rights of their people.

Rescinding the budget bills, C-45 and C-38, is 100-per-cent non-deliverable. The Harper government is not going to repeal its budget. No government of any stripe ever would.

But other bills have not been passed. The First Nations Transparency Act, which would require band leaders to publicly report their income, is before the Senate. Native leaders consider its provision onerous and unfair. The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act aims to improve drinking water safety on reserves, but lacks sufficient funding in the eyes for first nations leaders. It's still before the Commons. And there are other bills as well.

First nations leaders would be wise to identify which legislation the Harper government might be convinced to amend, and press for those amendments.

The Assembly of First Nations, in its lists of demands, emphasizes the need for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. This is eminently deliverable; native leaders should push hard for it.

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Mr. Harper has agreed to take personal charge of negotiations around treaty and land claims. He is known to be personally frustrated with what he sees as an obstructionist bureaucracy at Aboriginal and Northern Affairs. A new and expedited process for resolving claims is deliverable, provided first nations leaders agree in return that resource development is vital to Canada's and first nations' economic future.

Another key claim is that first nations share in revenues from resource development. This should be a deliverable: revenue sharing could lift some reserves out of poverty, and first nations have a strong case that they should benefit from the jobs and wealth created from resources taken from their ancestral lands.

The problem, as Gordon Gibson observed in this essay , is that natural resources are a provincial responsibility. Any agreement will require bringing the premiers to the table.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall made a point Tuesday of saying he wanted to "restate and make it clear" that provinces control resources under the Constitution, and must be consulted before any revenue sharing can be contemplated.

Finally, native leaders need to realize that the window for getting the Harper government to deliver deliverables could soon close. Any governing party, federal or provincial, has the power to divert, or at least temporarily distract, public attention from an unwelcome subject by making an announcement on another subject. It's standard operating procedure. Thus far, the Conservatives have made no attempt to shift public attention from Idle No More.

But attention will shift. There are trade agreements in the works, a budget coming up and the daily alarms that invariably sound when the House is in session. And the government's internal polling doubtless shows what an Ipsos Reid poll this week revealed: that 64 per cent of Canadians think native Canadians receive too much support from government, while 60 per cent believe natives themselves are mostly to blame for their problems.

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Idle No More risks fading from view. First nations leaders should take a hard look at the deliverables on their agenda and work to achieve them. While there's still time.

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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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