Chris Wattie/Reuters Photo

For weeks, I’ve been telling anyone that will listen, that realistically, this Prime Minister will only be attending the Crown-First Nations Gathering tomorrow in Ottawa for a grand total of thirty minutes.  Mark my words, the Prime Minister will take part in the opening ceremony, give his ten minute speech, and listen to the first couple of speeches.  However, he will depart within the hour.  Meanwhile, he will not have heard from the hundreds of Chiefs and their supporters that will be descending into Ottawa today as we speak.

That’s really par for the course for Mr. Harper when it comes to addressing Aboriginal issues such as poverty, education, economic development, the housing crisis, and missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  Any proactive, ambitious or comprehensive solution are just not in his bag of tricks nor what is being expected of his core constituents.

Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of disappointed Chiefs who have spend countless hours refining their speaking notes in anticipation of an audience with the PM.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) should have anticipated this situation and prepared to make better use of those precious few minutes.

In hindsight, if I was the National Chief, I would have used the annual AFN Special Chiefs Assembly held in December to bring First Nations together to develop a singular message with a corresponding action plan for the Prime Minister’s consideration.  This could have been brought to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) ahead of time for further strategic discussion prior to this week’s gathering.  This Crown-First Nations Gathering could then have been used for goal setting and implementation discussions between Ministers and officials.  Instead of bringing all these Chiefs to Ottawa this week, First Nations could have empowered National Chief Shawn Atleo with their message.

Sure, the National Chief will request a First Minister’s Meeting tomorrow.  Prime Minister Harper may very well agree to it.  But needless to say, the exercise of bringing all these Chiefs, Councillors and support staff to Ottawa will be unnecessary and unproductive.  I’m sure some simple-minded commentator will point out that these wasted resources could have been used to build a few more houses in Attawapiskat.

The modern day tradition of having First Nations Chiefs lining up at the microphones to speak to politicians is not very effective, nor strategic.  The reality is that our First Nations leaders are no longer cutting edge, inspirational orators.  They’re purveyors of tired, political rhetoric.

That reminds me of the times I took part in preparing for the annual meeting held between First Nations and the Ontario Premier.  Prior to each meeting, the Political Confederacy of Ontario led by the Chiefs of Ontario would develop a slide deck of key messages, and then divvy up the messaging among the Grand Chiefs.  Good plan, right?  Makes sense, sure.  Keep in mind the meeting is scheduled for one hour.

The meeting would proceed with an ever-so brief welcome from Premier Dalton McGuinty, five minutes, tops.  Followed by an introduction of the issues by the Ontario Regional Chief.  That almost always does a bit too long.  Each Grand Chief’s appointed section would also go over schedule.  Almost always, an unannounced Chief would come forward to speak to an important issue of the day, but in turn, taking up another unexpected, unscheduled fifteen minutes.  The meeting would result in little dialogue with the Premier but include plenty of complex messaging, background, context, examples and, of course, rhetoric.  Almost always, there are far too many issues, very few solutions, all wrapped into a whole lot of “rights-based” political rhetoric.  (Somebody ask Mr. McGuinty or his Cabinet what “rights-based” means and they wouldn’t have the faintest clue.)

As First Nations, we need to learn to be more savvy politicians.  We need to be far more strategic and opportunistic.  I disagree with those who state there is no need for the AFN or for Chiefs to be involved.  Actions plans don’t just happen, they need to be developed then implemented.  But this needs to be done in a much more strategic way.  Do we have goals, objectives and timelines?  Do we have workplans and required resources to achieve a political goal?  Do we have strategies to get there?  Goals shouldn’t only be “rights-based” they need to be solutions-based.

As The Byrds and Kevin Bacon tell us, there is a time for every purpose.  There is a time for talk – when it leads to fruitful discussion.  There is a time for speeches – when it leads to inspiration and understanding.  Indeed, there is a time for photo opps, when solutions are being implemented.

In this case, we only have thirty minutes with the Prime Minister.  How will the National Chief and First Nations use their time?