OTTAWA - Next week's First Nations summit will include hundreds of chiefs, the prime minister, the Governor General and about a dozen cabinet ministers.
But Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will be conspicuous by his absence.
Forging a new fiscal relationship is central to the meeting, with both aboriginal leaders and the government alike recognizing a pressing need to discuss how money is best spent.
Actual money won't come until the next federal budget at the earliest.
"It's not a budget negotiation. It's much more than that," National Chief Shawn Atleo said in an interview Friday.
First Nations leaders want an end to the unpredictable nature of the current grant-based funding -- a system that has frequently been criticized by the federal auditor general for being unreliable and preventing solid planning.
Instead, they want a new framework that would see a statutory commitment to continuing funding that would see the responsibility shared by both the federal government and First Nations leaders.
"It's about completely transforming the way we do our work. And it's about seeking commitments that the Crown will work with us to change the fiscal relationship, that we would move towards more stable, long-term fiscal relationships," Atleo said.
"And that we would do that work together, and that we would move away from the unilateral nature of decision making."
Flaherty's sanction is not really necessary for those kinds of conversations. But for First Nations, changing the fiscal structure is only the first step.
Follow-up in the next budget is crucial, especially on education, if the federal government is going to live up to its commitments under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed recently by Canada, First Nations leaders say.
"I would certainly be looking to the upcoming budget," Atleo signalled.
The start of the next fiscal year will be the sign for many First Nations about whether Stephen Harper is serious about working with aboriginals, says Grand Chief David Harper of the Northern Manitoba Chiefs.
At that point, native communities will feel the practical impacts of improvements Harper has committed to, or whether he plans to cut funds for housing -- as many chiefs suspect.
"The results, they'll say a lot," Chief Harper said in a telephone interview.
At a minimum, chiefs want to see parity with non-First Nations people on funding for education, child welfare and social services. But those items alone would cost the federal government billions of dollars. …