Ottawa — Thousands of Indians held a ``potlatch'' in downtown Vancouver last week - giving away food as their ancestors did years ago. But the purpose of the feast was not the ancient one of boosting the prestige of the host. It was to draw attention to the Indians' desire to have aboriginal rights of self-government entrenched in a clause of the Canadian Constitution.
That question has come to a head at a conference of ``first ministers'' under way in Ottawa. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, provincial premiers, and representatives of two northern territories are meeting today with negotiators for Canada's Indians, M'etis (mixed European and Indian), and Inuit (Eskimos) to hammer out - if they can - the language of the constitutional clause.
The Constitution now affirms the ``existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada,'' but also provides for a constitutional conference to define these rights. Three conferences have been held since 1983 without reaching agreement.
The contentious issue is whether the natives have an inherent right to self-government or whether this right must be defined through negotiations.
If the right is inherent, as the natives argue, any disagreement on details could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada for final arbitration. The natives point out that before the arrival of the white man, their tribal nations or communities were self-governing.
Gary Potts, a Northern Ontario Indian chief, says that what is involved is ``the essence of Canada'' - coexistence, sharing, and racial tolerance.
But the federal government and the provinces are, to varying degrees, reluctant to introduce another jurisdiction - that of native self-government, as possibly defined by the Supreme Court - into what has been a federal-provincial division of governmental powers.
Hopes are not high for reaching agreement at this session. To amend the Constitution requires support of the federal government and seven provinces having at least 50 percent of the population. The native proposal does not yet have approval of the necessary seven provinces.
Peter Jull, a former Cabinet official dealing with aboriginal affairs, worries about the impact of failure on the native communities. Native leaders have gone about seeking the constitutional provision in peaceful ways, he says, but failure could prompt an emotional reaction in some Indian reserves, perhaps even resulting in riots.
Canada's Indians, Inuit, and M'etis altogether number about 1 million. They amount to some 4 percent of the population, a much larger proportion than in the United States.
The governments are under considerable pressure to settle, both to get the longstanding issue resolved and because of public support for the natives. A poll commissioned by the Inuit Committee on National Issues, released earlier this month, showed 77 percent of Canadians supporting entrenchment of self-government in the Constitution.