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Harper, chiefs at odds over Indian Act

What was billed as a historic coming together of the federal government and First Nations began with the two sides polarized over the future of the Indian Act.

Prime Minister 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."

But Harper's trademark incrementalist approach isn't what aboriginal leaders are looking for.

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."

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.

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