OTTAWA - "I have no idea what it'll do."
John Duncan's frank, if less than illuminating, assessment of the impact on aboriginal protests of Friday's hard-won negotiating skirmish may have been the most honest assessment of the day.
The aboriginal affairs minister was one of three full cabinet ministers who flanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for more than four hours of politically fraught talks with some of the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.
The talks essentially led to agreement for more talks — which in the constipated world of First Nations' advancement in this country was portrayed as success, if not exactly a breakthrough.
"The prime minister agreed with the need to provide enhanced oversight from the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office," Duncan told a hastily arranged news conference on Parliament Hill.
"And the prime minister agreed to debrief the members of his cabinet and government on today's discussions and agreed to meet with the national chief in the coming weeks to review next steps."
Canadians can be forgiven if they feel they've seen this movie before.
Almost exactly a year ago, what was billed as an "historic" meeting between Ottawa and First Nations ended with a joint statement ... promising more talks.
"We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them and affirm that they will not be repeated," said the statement issued at end of a day-long meeting last Jan. 24.
"As partners in the Crown-First Nations gathering, we will maintain the relationship through an ongoing dialogue that outlines clear goals and measures of progress and success."
By October, however, the promised dialogue was so frustrating the First Nations leadership that Shawn Atleo, the accommodating national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, wrote a series of heated letters to the prime minister and his aboriginal affairs minister to complain of a "loss of momentum."
"This is exacerbated by the federal government's broader legislative agenda, which has the potential for harmful impacts on First Nations, including changes to environmental regulation, fisheries and criminal justice," Atleo wrote Harper in a letter obtained by The Canadian Press.
Those same issues have since helped fuel the grassroots fire that is the Idle No More protest movement.
At the time, Atleo complained to Duncan that talks with officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada were going nowhere.
"First Nations leadership have keenly engaged in good faith to begin a dialogue only to be met by AANDC officials indicating that they have no mandate to even enter into discussions,'' he wrote the minister in October.
By that measure, Friday's talks — although boycotted by chiefs from Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories — moved the goalposts, in the words of former national chief Matthew Coon Come.
Having the PMO and PCO, the nerve centres of any federal government, promising to actively oversee native files should clear the cobwebs of bureaucratic inertia and impotence.
Duncan, pressed on the meaning of the promised "high-level dialogue" that Friday's talks delivered, responded that PMO and PCO attention would assist "those sticky items which are identified which could use some direction from the centre."
In other words, the squeaky wheel gets the grease — a fitting aphorism given all the drama that preceded Friday's sit-down, which included street protests, hunger strikes and boycotts.
Ian Brodie, Harper's former chief of staff, noted earlier this week that any chiefs contemplating a boycott were misguided.
"I offer this as advice to anyone who thinks you accomplish more by not meeting the PM than by meeting him," Brodie wrote on Twitter.
Critics will say its a piece of advice that should work both ways for the prime minister.
"It shouldn't even be a big deal," Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, observed of the meeting just before the talks began Friday.
"It should be a regular occurrence, it shouldn't be something that causes headlines ... It is truly preposterous in our country at this point that we're allowing things to get this stage of confrontation where just the most fundamental premises of civility are not able to be observed."
Atleo emerged from the meeting wounded by internal divisions in the native movement and, like the aboriginal affairs minister, unwilling to predict an end to native protests.
"The voices of our people, they will not be silenced," Atleo said in an interview, adding First Nations will be demanding that promises are followed through.
"I believe that sense of urgency was heard by the prime minister."
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