Former AFN chief Mercredi on last-ditch effort to broaden First Nations meeting

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OTTAWA - A serene hope enveloped Ovide Mercredi as he led two fellow aboriginal chiefs to the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's right-hand man on Wednesday night.

Less than 48 hours later, however, Mercredi would be filled with bitter disappointment at a government that he says was lacking the simple common sense to avoid embittering aboriginal people from coast to coast.

Mercredi, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Metis activist Perry Bellegarde and British Columbia Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould met for more than an hour with Harper's chief of staff Nigel Wright in an effort to open the meeting up.

They were unsuccessful.

Mercredi offered details Friday of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that led to the meeting between Harper and a much smaller than envisioned group of native leaders, behind the closed doors of his Langevin Block office.

Mercredi said Friday's demonstrations and the outrage that underlies them all could have been avoided had Harper simply agreed to a modest proposal to open the meeting, and allow Gov.-Gen. David Johnston to attend at least part of it.

"If they cannot make a compromise on the logistics of a meeting, what faith do we have in them responding to the issues facing aboriginal people in Canada?" he told The Canadian Press.

"It's a reflection of what we can expect from this government."

Shortly after their arrival Monday in Ottawa, the three chiefs were tasked by AFN leadership with approaching the Prime Minister's Office and getting a workable agenda for the meeting.

They were mindful of the demands of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, but as Mercredi recalled it, the three chiefs were intent on finding common ground with Harper's PMO and arranging a meeting that their membership could live with.

"There was a lot of opposition to attending a meeting where not all the chiefs would be included, also where the agenda was predetermined," he said.

"So we had a big discussion about crafting our agenda, together with the government and getting a process that would be inclusive, but also the governor general would be present."

At 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, the three chiefs started their meeting in Wright's office with that hope still burning.

The government side did make some concessions, said Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the First Nations Summit in British Columbia. They agreed to open up the agenda beyond treaty negotiations and economic development, as originally proposed, and entertain discussion about housing, murdered and missing women and the impact on the environment of Harper's budget bills.

But the PMO wouldn't budge on the structure of the meeting — a crucial point for many of the bands from central Ontario and Manitoba whose treaties were signed by a representative of the Queen.

"We were trying to impress upon the government to include the Governor General in the meeting. And also to make it more open by having it televised. And but also we expressed for it to be inclusive," Mercredi recalled.

Wright listened attentively in what was a cordial, respectful discussion that wrapped at 10:15 p.m.

"We were told this would be taken to the prime minister and we would know the results the next day," Mercredi said.

But when Thursday came, the full contingent of AFN chiefs was stunned. A separate meeting with the Governor General — at his residence and in the evening after the meeting with Harper — was not what they had in mind.

"So, I was given a mandate to go back and try to secure a meeting with Nigel and a few other people."

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Mercredi picked up the phone.

"I placed a call to Nigel. He didn't take it. I left a message with his secretary to call me. He didn't call me back."

They waited two hours, and Mercredi called back.

This time, Wright came on the line.

"I had a discussion with him about how it is important for them to open up the meeting. And if they didn't, it would not be very positive. Likely many people wouldn't attend. It would create a real bad feeling across the country," said Mercredi.

"He said, 'No, the government has agreed to this and we're going to proceed as planned. We agreed to have the Governor General meet separately. And the other meeting will stay as it is.'"

A few hours later, early Thursday evening, Mercredi took the podium for 10 minutes at the AFN's hotel in downtown Ottawa. He broke the news to the chiefs behind closed doors.

The room erupted in outrage.

"They weren't mad at me. They tried to send me to get a better meeting. They were mad at the government (for) not listening," said Mercredi.

"That's the reason why people are out there protesting, because the government is not listening."

Wright did not immediately return calls Friday from The Canadian Press.

Regional groups of First Nations huddled Friday morning as the AFN made a last-ditch, unsuccessful effort to persuade the PMO to open up the meeting in order to unite all the chiefs.

For many of the treaty bands, it was too much to stomach, said Grand Chief Harvey Yesno of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario.

On Friday afternoon, Mercredi sipped a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup in the lobby of the now-quiet hotel as the meeting was unfolding several blocks away.

Mercredi reflected on the what-ifs as he sat gazing out the vast window at the dull grey, rain-soaked drizzle outside.

"The government of Canada has all kinds of buildings in Ottawa. There's no shortage of space," he said. "They could accommodate 200 to 300 people."

After all, when he was AFN chief back in the 1990s, he used to preside over large open meetings at the old government conference centre all the time.

So how should Friday's meeting have unfolded?

Three hundred AFN delegates would have been in the room to watch the meeting — to be there. Canadians would have watched on television.

National and regional chiefs could have done the talking with Harper's cabinet ministers.

"I think even some of our delegates would have been OK if the prime minister had to go away for a while and come back. We're not unresponsive to other people's needs, we can accommodate too. But the government was not accommodating to us."

And that, said Mercredi, is what triggered the outrage, and the divisions.

"It could have been avoided. All the prime minister had to do was say, ok, we'll change the venue. I heard you. We'll change the venue," he said.

"You have to see it this way," Mercredi said.

"It's a reflection of what we can expect from this government. It confirms the mistrust on the government. That's what it does."

Organizations: Assembly of First Nations, Canadian Press

Geographic location: OTTAWA, British Columbia, Canada Ontario Manitoba Northern Ontario

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