Prime Minister Stephen Harper billed the Crown-First Nations Gathering as a “historic event”. So did Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations. The mainstream media might be forgiven for almost unanimously declaring this meeting to be “historic”. This one meeting would, according to both Atleo and Harper, “reset the relationship” between the Crown and First Nations. In the end, however, despite all the drumming and wampum belts, it was little more than a “photo op” designed to deflect the average Canadian’s outrage at the federal government for everything conveyed by one word – Attawapiskat.

Of course, it wasn’t just Attawapiskat. It was also Pikangikum, Kashechewan, St. Theresa’s Point and dozens of other places that were once full of hope but have transformed into cesspools of despair, poverty and suicide. Canadians knew what had happened and who to blame because they’d been told by decades of royal commissions, parliamentary inquiries, and enough studies to fill a room. The evidence pointed to policies of the federal government, its incompetence and wilful ignorance.

But Ottawa spun an illusion that people in these communities were used to living in mouldy homes, washing with and drinking contaminated water, sending their kids to schools that were fire traps – that is if they had a school or books or teachers. They had done so for decades, Ottawa said. If a story complaining about living conditions hit the headlines, federal officials shifted the blame on to the victim. The band council couldn’t handle its money, wasn’t building homes, or was corrupt and incompetent. This became standard operating procedure.

Then YouTube came along and shattered that illusion. Video of a family of six huddled around one shared mattress on the floor of a tiny plywood shack heated by a makeshift stove penetrated layers of national ignorance. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan blamed Attawapiskat’s chief and council for all those condemned “Indian Affairs houses”, a phrase that refers to the much too-common substandard quality of on-reserve home construction dictated by Duncan’s department. But Canadian’s weren’t buying it anymore. The federal government realized that. It needed a diversion. That’s why Harper called this “Crown-First Nations” shindig.

Shift to the opening of this “historic” gathering at Old City Hall. Only 175 of the estimated 500 chiefs heading to Ottawa will be allowed in. The hall is small and the breakout rooms are tiny. This is where it’s expected the chiefs will work with various departmental ministers and staff in workshops with gradiose titles like “Strengthening the Relationship”, “Unlocking the Potential” and “Realizing the Promise”. Then Harper makes it known that he’ll be there only for the ceremonial stuff before he’s on a plane to Davos, Switzerland to meet with the world’s richest people and their companies.

The chiefs are not impressed and say so. Harper, faced with charges that he’s about to abandon the world’s poorest so he can meet the world’s richest, agrees to meet a handful of chiefs on the eve of the meeting, to let a few more chiefs attend the meetings at Old City Hall, and to hear complaints about an agenda that seems to “reset” nothing.

Harper’s meeting the evening before averts disaster. It placates many chiefs but a few still refuse to go to Old City Hall and a few more say they’ll walk out if their shopping list doesn’t get serious attention. They want their land rights recognized, a share of resources, treaties respected, and an end to antagonistic legal actions by federal lawyers on anything Indigenous. Just meet us halfway, they seem to say.

Cue the drums and feathers, pomp and circumstance, smudges and wampum belts. Governor-General David Johnston, Harper and Atleo spend the morning delivering speeches full of clichés and historic references: from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to Indian Residential schools. Harper raises eyebrows when he seems to claim citizenship with “my home nation, the Blood First Nation of Southern Alberta”. The irony is beyond mainstream reporters.

Mainstream reporters also miss the fact that Harper’s list of “accomplishments”, seen from the perspective of the reserve, isn’t all that impressive.

“Our government has addressed historic grievances by accelerating the settlement of both comprehensive and specific claims.”

“We have extended the full protection of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA)…”

“We are… about to ensure that the property of First Nations women and children are protected when relationships end.”

Each of the above examples are, in fact, more of the top-down, Great-White-Father-Knows-Best approach that First Nations have had imposed upon them seemingly forever. Ottawa imposed time limits and caps on compensation on land claims, even though everyone knows that game has always been fixed to favour the federal government. The federal government never provided the tools needed by First Nations so they might phase in the CHRA or adapt their Indian Act-based codes to respect Matrimonial Property Rights.

In the end, it boils down to these few words in Harper’s speech. He spoke about the need to “unlock the enormous economic potential of First Nations people” in the development of Canada’s natural resources and economy. He didn’t use the word “for” in that sentence – as in, “unlock the economic potential for First Nations people” which would have changed the whole meaning and purpose of that meeting.

It wasn’t a mistake. The signs before this meeting were not encouraging, no matter what Atleo said. The chiefs might have arrived with a long list of wants and needs, but also with very low expectations. They knew that words, at least from the federal government, are full of empty promise until put down onto paper.

The AFN’s Regional Chief from BC, Judy Wilson-Raybould expressed that pessimism best. “So with all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, on this point we must ask that you please rethink your government’s approach set out in a number of recent bills introduced or proposed affecting our peoples, which seek to tinker around the edges of the Indian Act in a piecemeal way with federally imposed solutions to our issues and in advance of our Nations having first had the opportunity to address core governance reform.”

It boiled down to dueling metaphors. Harper didn’t want to remove a “stump”, meaning the Indian Act, and leave an empty hole in the legislative ground. Atleo referred to a “boulder”, also the Indian Act, that blocked real reform by removal of Canada’s on-going system of internal colonialism.

In the end, Harper didn’t leave to hob-nob at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He stayed the whole day. The mainstream media sung his praises, while a few chiefs said they would have stomped out if he hadn’t stayed. After all, he invited them there to a meeting that was supposed to “reset the relationship” from bad to good, or at least better. His departure would have sent a very different signal to the chiefs but also to many Canadians who have become increasingly critical of this government ever since the Attawapiskat story hit the headlines – and have stayed that way.

At the end of the day, Duncan walked out to deliver his take on a joint statement. It addressed nothing that the chiefs wanted. The chiefs went in hoping for a sign that treaties would be respected, revenue might be shared, rights to self-determination finally acknowledged. The “joint” statement didn’t mention anything about any of that.

Instead, the statement included this – a commitment by the federal government to move “toward a single, multi-year Government of Canada financial arrangement for First Nations with high-performing governance systems.”

This had some chiefs, and some reporters too, wondering what this meant. What did “high-performing governance systems” mean? Did it mean that band councils be penalized for not being “high-performing”? It had more than a few chiefs wondering if “historic” was the right term for this meeting and was this the “reset relationship” they wanted with the Crown.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin called the result “incomprehensible”. Speaking to a Montreal radio station, Martin said the federal government didn’t need “more studies to discover that poverty exists on reserves.” Ottawa had ignored education, health, housing and safe drinking water and study after study shows that “underfunding really is discrimination.” These studies have recommended what needs to be done to improve living conditions on reserves. All that’s really needed now, Martin said, “is for the federal government to decide to get it done.”