AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde Opening Address to the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly on Federal Legislation

Published: May 03, 2018News

May 1, 2018

Tawaw kahkiyaw,
okimâwak, nâpewak, iskwewak, kêhtêak, oskâyak. Okimaw piyisiw awasis nitisihkason. Miyo kisikaw anoch.

Chief Whiteduck, thank you for welcoming us to the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples.

To the Elders, Bear Babin and all the pipe carriers who led the pipe ceremony, and Josie Whiteduck for that beautiful water ceremony to start us off in a good way this morning. Thank you to Ryder and Quill Cote-Nottaway for those words of welcome. And for the great job done by our Drum Group, Eagle River Singers for our songs – our Grand Entry song, our Flag song, and our Victory Song. Thank you so much, for when we hear that drum beat, we say that is the heart beat of Mother Earth and it beats in all of us. It unites us and ties us together.


Chiefs, friends and relatives, good morning. I shake hands with each and every one of you in a humble and respectful way.

We come together at a time of great opportunity. A time of change. 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 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.

We wanted this opportunity to work together, to come together and ask questions, because there is so much happening.

When I was elected National Chief, we developed a plan to ensure First Nations priorities advanced. We wrote the Closing the Gap document. During the last federal election, we shared that plan with each of the federal parties. 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 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.

Together, we are the Assembly of First Nations. We have been working for policy and legislative change for decades – and that is what is happening.

We have forged many avenues and created many opportunities to make progress. But we also need time for questions, time for you to work out the details as First Nations, time to make sure things are going in the right direction.

We have the Indigenous Languages Act which our Chiefs Committee on Languages has been working on to revitalize and restore all of our First Nations languages. We can’t afford to lose even one of them. They are so fundamental to who we are. We need to revitalize, bring about fluency and restore them. And one day in our Assembly, all we will hear are the languages of our old people.

Studies have shown that when our young people are fluent in their language, when they know who they are and where they come from, they are more successful in school and, therefore, more successful in life.

Language is key. Today, for the first time ever at an AFN Assembly, when the Chiefs get up and speak, when they speak in their own language, we will have interpreters translating. Haudenasaunee.  Mi’kmaq.  Ojibway. Cree. Nakota.  Today, we’ll hear our First Nations languages spoken at our Assembly, but with interpreters for all to understand.

Minister Joly is responsible for introducing the Indigenous languages bill. We need to get that done this fall because if it doesn’t hit that timeframe, we run the risk of not having this federal legislation, of not having a statutory responsibility for the federal budget to include funds for language recovery and revitalization.

Because in October of 2019, Canada will have another federal election. And any legislation that isn’t passed, will die on the order paper. So we need to focus and to get things done.

Another piece of legislation that is top priority is Bill C-262, which has already passed second reading. We want to be sure it becomes law. Bill C-262 provides a framework to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a Private Members Bill sponsored by Romeo Saganash, and the government is supporting it.

Bill C-262 is about realizing rights that have always existed. It’s not giving us anything. We have inherent rights. They are already recognized in Canada’s Constitution. They have been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in more than 200 decisions in favour of First Nations. And Bill C-262 provides a framework to help us realize those rights in practice. It’s about finding a better way to work together so that we don’t have to keep spending millions of dollars and wasting years fighting in the courts.

The UN Declaration affirms our right to Free Prior and Informed Consent when decisions are being made that impact us. It’s in Article 19: States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with Indigenous peoples through their own representative institutions, in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

There needs to be dialogue between governments and First Nations peoples to establish how Free Prior and Informed Consent will be obtained and respected. How do we operationalize Free Prior and Informed Consent? We must work together to substantively answer that question. It will be different in different circumstances.

It is not a “one size fits all.” Just as there are different points of view between the provinces.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is the perfect example. Some First Nations are for the pipeline, and some are not for it. We need to use our traditional protocols to get our people together to resolve this amongst ourselves – our dispute resolution process, using our traditional protocols.

There is a great deal of work for us to do together. One area of consensus is that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation. It provides a set of minimum standards that States have committed to fully implement. And it is a floor, not a ceiling.

There are currently two proposals to advance implementation of the Declaration. Bill C-262 is now before Parliament. Chiefs-in-Assembly expressed their support and I have urged all parties to support it. The government supports Bill C-262. This legislation represents a first important step to advance implementation of the UN Declaration through joint efforts, including development of a National Action Plan.

In the House of Commons, on February 14 of this year, the Prime Minister announced the government’s intention to develop, with Indigenous peoples, a “Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework”.

One element of this framework would be to require federal officials to carry out their duties in ways that respect our rights under the Constitution and international law.

The government talks of doing things in a new way. It is time for Canada to direct its lawyers to take positions in court that match the government’s statements on rights recognition. It’s time to abandon the old policies of rights denial. That is something that could happen right now. I have written the Prime Minister and urged the Minister of Justice to work on changes to the Crown’s approach to litigation management.

That day on the House, the Prime Minister spoke of “new ways” to recognize and implement Indigenous rights. He said this will include new legislation, and the government is moving very fast on this. The federal government wants to develop this framework, which they have described as “building on” Bill C-262 and the UN Declaration, as “going further”.

And they want to get something done before the next election, just a year and a half from now. We have said there must be greater transparency and better engagement with all First Nations.

A lot of you Chiefs have a great many questions about this Rights Recognition Framework. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Because there are so many questions to be determined by First Nations rights holders. What structure do you want to use? Is it bands or reserves? Is it Treaty areas? How do you want to reconstitute our Nations and Tribes?

We know that we need to fix Canada’s laws, policies and practices. We need to develop our own laws and move beyond the Indian Act. Comprehensive claims, specific claims, the Additions to Reserve policy and that inherent right to self-government policy. All of those current federal policies are based on termination of rights, not recognition of rights and Title. So we’ve got to fix them.

Recognition of our inherent right to self-determination – that’s what we’ve got to get to. That policy is so important. The Department of Indigenous Services has about 200 tables. Tables intended to move beyond the Indian Act. How does this fit with the rights recognition framework, and what Prime Minister Trudeau said in the House on February 14? How do affected First Nations wish to move beyond the Indian Act?

This is a big piece, this Rights Recognition Framework.

We also have Minister Jody Wilson Raybould’s 10 principles. At the Assembly of First Nations we’ve been doing our analysis of those. They don’t exactly align with the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. How do they influence the work we’re trying to do? We didn’t develop them. And the process that they are using is not our process – it’s their process, their timeframe. And they are trying to rush it. And we’re saying slow it down, slow it down so we all understand what is involved.

How will the Rights Recognition Framework work with Bill C-262, the UN Declaration Bill? How will it impact our Treaties?

And if you slow it down, you run the risk of it not making the timeframe before the next federal election. So it’s something we’ve got to digest, dialogue about, debate, and seek direction on.

And that’s why we’re here. To weigh the opportunities with the risks. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Come the fall of 2019, it could continue to be Prime Minister Trudeau. Or it could be Prime Minister Singh. It could be Prime Minister Scheer or Prime Minister May.

Another piece of legislation that we’ve got to deal with is cannabis. A Justice Department representative told a House Committee that it will apply across the board whether First Nations want it or not.  Well, what about First Nations jurisdiction and the right to determine what happens on our own lands and with our own peoples? There is also the matter of our exclusion from the dialogue regarding the Excise Tax. 75 per cent to the provinces, 25% to the federal government – what about our governments?

Then there’s Bill C68 and C69 – changes to the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Regulatory Review Process on energy projects and navigable waters. The Assembly of First Nations Environment Sector – that is the Advisory Committee on Climate Action and the Environment, the ACCAE Committee – has been focused on advancing Indigenous Knowledge Systems and working with our Elders Council. They’ve been hosting technical briefing sessions across the country regarding this legislation.

This is another Bill the government intends to pass before the next election. It’s now at the amendments stage of the process. So we still have a chance to influence the legislation. And then the regulations and the policies that determine how the law actually works in practice.

On the Child and Family services front, we have new monies in the federal budget after four orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. $1.4 billion dollars over six years. We placed a priority on investments in child welfare during our pre-budget advocacy work, and we saw new investments in child welfare in Budget 2018.

July 18 is the next time the premiers get together at the Council of the Federation meeting. Previously, in July of 2016 the Premiers all committed to one thing, and we want to hold them to account for that one thing – child welfare. We have 40,000 children in care. Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has called our situation “a humanitarian crisis.” In January, at an emergency meeting on child and family services, I called for the establishment of tripartite working tables in each of the 13 provinces and territories to work towards addressing the challenges our children face in the off-reserve child and family services systems.

We see some pockets of progress. Just last week in British Columbia, Chief Wayne Christian and other First Nations leaders were successful in seeing legislation introduced to ensure First Nations have jurisdiction over the welfare of First Nations children in that province, no matter where they live. And in Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaw worked with the province to change legislation and shift the focus to prevention, which has led to a significant decrease in the number of First Nations children in care.

We work every day on reforming these systems – fighting for fair and adequate funding for the services on reserve, and for those children in care across the provinces and territories. Our focus is on prevention, adequate funding, and acknowledging the inherent right and jurisdiction of First Nations to provide care and protection for their children. Nationally, that work is led by the National Advisory Committee chaired by Grand Chief Ed John. Minister Jane Philpott has talked about a broad review of laws and policies on child and family services, done with First Nations leadership. She will be with us tomorrow.

Under Section 88 of the Indian Act, where no federal law is in place, provincial laws apply. So we need to exert First Nations jurisdiction and put our own laws in place so that provincial acts don’t apply. We have always said we need our own laws over child and family services to protect our children and keep as many as possible safe in our communities.

Now, while we’re together this morning Chiefs, I want to take a few minutes to give you an update on a few other things.

On March 26, we had our MOU meeting with federal ministers, plus the 10 Regional Chiefs. As the Assembly of First Nations, we have an agreement to meet three times a year with federal ministers. And the Prime Minister is committed to one of those meetings each year.

We met last month, and we continued our work on a new fiscal relationship between the Crown and First Nations, a fiscal relationship that provides sufficient, predictable, and sustainable funding based on real needs.

We need to see that investments are continually made and are needed each and every year to close the gap. So every year we meet with Bill Morneau, the Finance Minister. He’s the one we need to influence to make sure that gap continues to close. And we’ve been pretty successful. $17 billion in the last three budgets over seven fiscal years – three times what was promised in the Kelowna Accord.

And let me be very clear on this point: this is a debt owed by Canada, a debt owed for the resources used to build this country and its economy. Our new fiscal relationship has to flow from the land and resource wealth we are sharing with all Canadians.

That new fiscal relationship is one of the things we talk about during those MOU meetings. And because of that work at the Chiefs Committee on fiscal table, you’re now able to carry over some of that money now from one fiscal year to the next. It was a simple policy change. Remember March madness? Spend it or lose it? Not there anymore.

We also talked about policing as an essential service. In January, Minister Goodale announced $291 million for First Nations policing. There is still a way to go for First Nations policing to be seen as an essential service, and to be able to deliver services comparable to the RCMP and other regional police services. That work continues.

Internally, at the Assembly of First Nations, we’ve put three new Chiefs Committees in place. A Chiefs Committee on Gaming. I think there is an opportunity now to amend Section 207 of the Criminal Code and exert First Nations jurisdiction over all gaming on reserve. We’ve established a Chiefs Committee on Border Crossing, and another one on Nation Building to deal with the rights recognition framework, Bill C-262, and implementing the UN Declaration. We’ve asked Regional Chiefs to appoint Chiefs to these Committees.

Work is continuing on 100 Wellington, the Indigenous Peoples House. That building directly opposite Parliament Hill is an important symbol of our presence in these lands. And working with the Algonquin peoples, and working with the Inuit and the Metis leaders, we need to identify the proper purpose for this new facility.

Internationally, we have NAFTA. I was asked to be on Minister Chrystia Freeland’s Advisory Committee and the first thing I recommended was an Indigenous Peoples Chapter. Things have changed since NAFTA was first negotiated. The three countries in these negotiations have all endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now they must honour it by including an Indigenous Peoples Chapter.

We don’t know where NAFTA is going to go, but we’ve got Canada to present an Indigenous People Chapter in NAFTA. And we’ve got to do the same with CETA and FIPA – all the other international trade agreements.

And finally, I want to close with a few words about our work to get Pope Francis to come and meet with First Nations peoples, meet with the Residential School survivors and their families, to hear from the Pope directly. The Catholic Church is the only one not to apologize. 70 per cent of children in Residential Schools were in Catholic run schools. We need him to say sorry.

And when he comes, we also want him to make a strong statement against the Doctrine of Discovery, the Doctrine of Terra Nullius – those illegal, racist doctrines. That is how the Crown assumed jurisdiction. Those doctrines are being recognized around the world as illegal racist doctrines. They were the basis for assumed Crown sovereignty and assumed jurisdiction. We want the Pope to renounce them.

Chiefs, over the next two days we will have our discussions, our respectful debates and our dialogues. As Chiefs, you want a strong, united Assembly of First Nations. We have created significant opportunities for change and the real work is upon us. That is the work we started, and that is why we are here together – to continue that work.