Indigenous priorities and rights centre stage at AFN assembly

Prime minister stresses need to ‘turn the page decisively and comprehensively on the broken relationships of the past’

An Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Special Chiefs Assembly held May 1 and 2 examined and discussed federal legislation impacting First
Nations, with delegates from the federal government addressing those in attendance. Photo by Fred Cattroll

An Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Special Chiefs Assembly held May 1 and 2 examined and discussed federal legislation impacting First Nations, with delegates from the federal government addressing those in attendance.

The AFN assembly explored subjects like the Indigenous Languages Act, implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, safe drinking water, environmental and regulatory reviews, and other legislative issues both implemented and proposed. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde opened the assembly May 1.

“We come together at a time of great opportunity; a time of change,” he said.

“And with so many important things happening, policy and legislative initiatives, we know that you have questions. And we want to tell you what we know, and learn of the solutions you see.

We asked for their commitment to work with First Nations on meaningful reconciliation, on rights adoption and implementation, with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the foundation

“We called this Special Chiefs Assembly because there is so much happening. Several pieces of legislation are coming at us, and we want to be sure First Nations benefit from all of them. We want to be sure any legislation respects our rights and doesn’t impact in a negative way our treaty rights or our Aboriginal rights and title.”

Bellegarde said that when he was elected national chief the AFN developed a plan to ensure Indigenous priorities advanced, wrote the Closing the Gap document, and shared the plan with federal parties during the last election.

“We asked for their commitment to work with First Nations on meaningful reconciliation, on rights adoption and implementation, with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the foundation,” he continued.

“We did this, and that is what is driving the national agenda now. Together, we made Canadians care about First Nations priorities. And that is why we are here today – because change is happening.”

The October 2019 federal election makes passing legislation a timely issue, Bellegarde stressed. “Any legislation that isn’t passed, will die on the order paper,” he said. “So we need to focus and to get things done.”

Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott addressed the assembly May 2, speaking about the potential for co-created child welfare legislation and reform work around child and family services. “Indigenous children aged zero to 14 make up 7.7 per cent of the children – all children in this country,” she said.

“But if you look at children in the child welfare system across the country, only taking into account the children in private homes, not taking into account children in group homes, Indigenous children make up 52 per cent of those children. This is a humanitarian crisis.” Philpott said co-created legislation could support First Nations jurisdiction.

We know that the process isn’t perfect. We welcome any advice. We want your communities to know that and we want to continue to improve how we engage. The era of Ottawa determining how and when and where your rights are implemented is over

 “You have jurisdiction but laying it down in federal legislation could say loudly to other orders of government that that jurisdiction holds and has to be respected,” she said. “It can also do what we see in other governments like the United States where federal legislation affirms the role of Indigenous laws and courts and recognizes the potential role of First Nations courts, for example.”

The end goal is to keep Indigenous children with their families, Philpott said. “They need to be on their lands, surrounded by their language, with the grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles, learning about their culture. And that is the end goal, children and families together.”

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett addressed the government’s proposed Indigenous rights recognition framework legislation. “It’s important for you to hear directly from me that despite what you may be hearing elsewhere, the framework has not yet been written… we are committed to co-developing this framework and walk the talk of nothing about us without us,” she said.

“We know that the process isn’t perfect. We welcome any advice. We want your communities to know that and we want to continue to improve how we engage. The era of Ottawa determining how and when and where your rights are implemented is over.” Bennett said the government is determined to “work on a path to vibrant proud Indigenous nations in charge of their lives and their lands.”

We are all impatient to move forward in concrete, tangible, real ways that turn the page decisively and comprehensively on the broken relationships of the past, of the empty promises of the past, on the failed policies of the past

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also addressed the assembly. “We are all impatient to move forward in concrete, tangible, real ways that turn the page decisively and comprehensively on the broken relationships of the past, of the empty promises of the past, on the failed policies of the past,” he said.

Trudeau said the government is working in partnership with First Nations to close gaps in living conditions.

“Every person in Canada, wherever they may live, should be able to drink the water that comes out of their tap,” he said. Trudeau said the government can “do this quickly, or we can do this right, and I know that those two are mutually exclusive.”

“No one is going to be able to back up on this path forward that we’re taking,” he said. “That is the true legacy of this two and a half year relationship. There are things that will never be able to be undone, and that is a good thing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *