Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde – Opening Remarks to the AFN Annual General Assembly

Published: Jul 25, 2017News

July 25, 2017

Tawaw kahkiyaw,

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

My friends and relatives I welcome you all.

I acknowledge the Elders and lift them up for the pipe ceremony this morning and for getting us all connected to the Creator.

I acknowledge that we are in Treaty 4 Territory.

I also acknowledge the drum group for singing our beautiful songs – the Whitefish Juniors. Thank you so much for being here with us.

I acknowledge and thank the work of the Regional Chiefs and Elmer Courchene, Chair of the Elders Council, Chief Denise Stonefish, Chair of the Women’s Council. I want to thank the outgoing Co-Chairs of the Youth Council, Andre Bear and Jennifer Obamsawin, and welcome and congratulate the two newly elected Co-Chairs of the Youth Council – Cheyenne Fineday and Mark Hill, and all of the members of our Assembly of First Nations Councils.

It’s good to be home in Saskatchewan. I grew up on Little Black Bear, about an hour and a half from here, near Fort Qu’Appelle, the lands where the Treaty 4 Chiefs met with the Crown’s representatives. And that land, that sacred site is still there. It’s good to be here with you in Treaty 4 Territory.

Our theme for this Assembly is something that all of us have in our hearts and in our minds everyday – “Our Priority: Our Children, Our Future.” It’s why we do what we do every day.

To make life better for our children. To create a world where there is a better future, one where our human rights, inherent rights, collective rights, our Treaty rights are respected and not something that we have to fight for every day.

Our Annual General Assembly is always a time to look back on progress made, and to talk about the work we still have to do.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past few weeks thinking about what I want to say. And it’s been more challenging than usual to put these words together, more challenging to find the right words.

In some ways we have made a great deal of progress over the past year, but it’s also clear, we still have many challenges to face and go through.

I want to talk about the progress we’ve made, and I will do that in a few minutes. But I also

acknowledge that our thoughts are with the many people displaced by the fires in British Columbia. The Ashcroft Indian Band has seen all of their homes burnt.  Governments in Canada, please deal with that new, urgent situation.

And I see those who continue to face challenges while they push for change, like those in Halifax where a group tried to intimidate people while they were in ceremony at a peaceful gathering to oppose the statue of a man linked to the genocide against the Mi’kmaq peoples.

And I want to remember and recognize names we carry in our thoughts as we work together over the next few days, and into the year ahead.

Names of people like Barbara Kentner, the young mother in Thunder Bay struck down while walking with her sister, by someone who threw a trailer hitch in hatred.

Colton Boushie, a young man, just 22, at the start of his adult life, out for a day with his friends who lost his life seeking help for a flat tire. And we all remember how the laying of charges in Colton’s case triggered an ugly online firestorm of racism and hatred.

Another name, Tammy Keeash, who died just weeks ago at 17, in a river in Thunder Bay, something that is happening with frightening regularity in that community where several of our First Nations children have drowned, and their families are still waiting for answers.

The prevalence of racism and violence is very troubling.

On July 12, I walked the streets of Winnipeg’s North End with the Bear Clan Patrol, a group that walks the streets in the evenings in an effort to keep their people and neighbourhood safe.

It’s a sad truth that safety is an issue for our children and families in many places.

So while we are all working to make progress on important issues like clean water, better housing, education and health, Treaty and inherent rights, preserving and revitalizing our languages, and so many other important things, we also need to stop the terrible loss of life.

I have served as a Chief and, like all of you, I know we are elected by our people to stand up for our children’s rights, as well as those of future generations.

Every child has a right to a safe and healthy home and to grow up in a society where they are treated with dignity and respect and have the same opportunities as other children.

And so my first message this morning is for Canada: this has to end. The racism, the discrimination, the poverty. These are not just First Nations problems.

Racism kills.

It is as simple and as tragic as that. This has to end. It’s time for action.

These are Canada’s problems. And we must work together to solve them. We need to build bridges and find solutions.

It’s a very challenging time for all of us as leaders. We are witnessing alarming acts of racism and violence.

And at the same time, we are on cusp of positive change on certain fronts. Commitments to change are important. And we must see these commitments lead to action. And action is the only thing that matters for our people.

In some ways, we are on the right path.

One indication of this is the process we now have in place to sit regularly with members of the federal cabinet, including the Prime Minister, to assess and discuss First Nations’ priorities, and plan a way forward and make the proper investments.

The Assembly of First Nations – Canada Memorandum of Understanding on Joint Priorities I signed with the Prime Minister on June 12 is part of that work. It outlines a commitment for us to engage regularly with the key people who make federal laws and policies, so we can make the changes necessary to respect inherent rights, Aboriginal rights and Treaty rights.

These meetings will be used to identify key issues and find solutions so we can break through the barriers facing our people.

We have also been working hard over the past year to establish a joint process to review federal laws and policies to make sure they uphold and respect First Nations rights. In order to fully realize First Nations Treaty rights and inherent rights, title and jurisdiction – and make no mistake, we will make that happen. Canada’s laws, written over decades to deny us those rights, must be rewritten.

All these laws – C-38, C-45, C-51, C-27 – all of these laws were not written to respect the recognition of rights and title but are based on the termination of rights and title. They have to change. First Nations scholars, Elders, policy experts and our best legal minds must be part of this process.

Our people will write the laws that govern our own Nations, and we must help Canada to revise those laws, policies and procedures that conflict with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and with Canada’s own constitution, including Section 35, which recognizes existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights.

Just over a week ago, Minister Wilson-Raybould released her 10 principles to guide this work and we are doing the assessment and the analysis on this piece. We lift her up for this work, and it is a whole of government approach.  We want to make sure it is done as a respectful joint process together.

In addition to those laws, there has to be a separate and equally important process to change policies that also need to be re-written: the Comprehensive Claims policy, the Specific Claims policy, the Additions to Reserve policy, the Inherent Right to Self-Government policy.

All of these are based on termination of rights and title, not recognition of rights and title. There needs to be a process and a plan for that policy work to happen, and it has to be done together.

This year, another intense effort was made by the Assembly of First Nations ahead of the federal budget. We meet with that Soniyaw Okimaw, the “Big Money Chief” – the Finance Minister. Every year, we advocate for First Nations in those meetings with Finance Minister Bill Morneau. He’s the one responsible for the federal budget, but Minister Morneau also meets with all of the other Cabinet Ministers about their budgets. So we meet with them too.

We meet with Minister Bennett to talk about investments in education, and housing, for clean water and Operations and Maintenance. That’s one department. And then we meet with Minister Philpott, the Minister of Health, and we ask about her priorities: mental health, Non-Insured Health Benefits, medical transportation. Then Minister Hajdu, Employment, Skills Development and Labour for on-reserve daycare and other programs. On policing and emergency services, we meet with Minister Ralph Goodale. Minister Joly on languages.

It’s all about persuading that Big Money Chief who is putting the budget together.

This year, $3.4 billion was allocated for Indigenous peoples’ priorities over five years. That’s in addition to the $8.4 billion budgeted in 2016 to help close the socio-economic gap for First Nations. In total that’s $11.6 billion so far.

Budget commitments are one important measure of progress. But alone, they are not enough.

That’s why the Chiefs Committee on Fiscal Relations has worked so hard over the past year to map out options for First Nations to consider on new fiscal relations with the federal government, working towards long-term sustainable, predictable funding.

It is simply unacceptable that money is delayed well into the year and then clawed back at the end of that fiscal year despite the pressing needs of our peoples. That’s why we’ve pressed for changes to the system to get resources to where they are needed, when they are needed – out to our First Nations.

So I am pleased to announce that there is going to be an announcement this morning with Minister Carolyn Bennett about how things can move from one fiscal year to the next. We’ll have more information for you on that.

We’re also working on the INAC policy on Operations and Maintenance. The federal government funds only a portion of the estimated costs of essential government services like fire and emergency services, water treatment and the provision of clean drinking water, forcing First Nations to find the rest or go without.

It’s an appalling policy with terrible risks associated with it. We know it. INAC knows it. And we now have an agreement to fix it. It’s another important step in the right direction.

We will keep working for our children, families and all our citizens. And I use that term deliberately. We want to re-build our Nations and that means moving away from the colonial concept of “membership” to “citizenship.” Citizenship is another area that has received a lot of our attention in recent months. You’ve heard of the “Descheneaux” case.

In May the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples heard testimony on Bill S-3, an Act to amend the Indian Act, with the intention of eliminating sex-based inequities in registration (as they call it).

The Assembly of First Nations has made it clear, we support the elimination of all forms of discrimination regarding Indian status and band membership.

Appearing before the Committee, I talked about the need for additional financial resources for us to provide essential services to new Status Indians. More money for the Non-insured Health Benefits program, for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program. But I also spoke of the need for additional reserve lands to account for increases in new citizens.  And I encouraged First Nations’ authority over First Nations’ citizenship and identity.

Citizenship is a key function of governments and of nationhood.

You’ve heard me say it before: we do not need to wait for government action. We can occupy the field. Create your own laws in this area. Exert jurisdiction over citizenship.

The Assembly of First Nations is here to support you. We have produced a template ‘Citizenship Act’ for First Nations governments to use and adapt based on your own needs.

We know that if we stay under the Indian Act for Status, there will be no more Status Indians in 50 years. That’s why we have to move beyond the Indian Act.

Another area where we have been focused is child welfare and family services.

The Assembly of First Nations has funded and provided legal expertise to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal challenge since it began in 2007. Working with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, we continue to fight to finally bring an end to racial discrimination against our children, and to uphold Jordan’s Principle.

This year we marked the 10th anniversary of that challenge.

In May, the Tribunal found that Canada is taking an overly narrow approach to honouring Jordan’s Principle. They reaffirmed that Jordan’s Principle applies to all First Nations children in need of care, regardless of where they reside, and they set out specific directives and timelines for Canada to comply.

We have been very successful in fighting this case. It is shameful that we had to go to the Tribunal to prove that our children were being discriminated against in the first place.

It is unconscionable and unacceptable that with a Tribunal decision and three compliance orders in our favour, Canada has still not complied. They have dragged their heels on the matter of jurisdiction and failed to recognize First Nations are best placed to know what is needed to ensure our children thrive.

The solution ultimately lies in the reassertion of First Nations jurisdiction over child welfare and our children regardless of where they live.

Now, the United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada expressed its unqualified commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016. But statements made by the previous government regarding objections to free, prior and informed consent were still on record from 2014.

This May at the United Nations, at our urging, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett put Canada formally on the record as fully committed to the standard of free, prior and informed consent stated in the UN Declaration.

That was a welcome statement. The next step is to work together on a National Action Plan for implementation of the UN Declaration, including jointly developing legislation to support the full implementation of the Declaration.

Another important area is languages. The Assembly of First Nations pressed the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to act on Assembly of First Nations Resolutions and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action that call for federal legislation to secure funding to revitalize, to protect, to recover, and maintain Indigenous languages. I have always said that our languages should be viewed as Canada’s national treasures.

Last month, I participated in a joint announcement with the Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Mélanie Joly, on the co-development of an Indigenous Languages Act. We will work together with her Department and we will press for that Legislation to include recognition of the special status of First Nations languages as the original languages of these lands.

There are more than 58 distinct Indigenous languages and none are considered safe.

The recognition, promotion, and recovery of our languages is a vital part of self-determination. It is vital to our Nations’ cultures and central to our songs, our stories, and our ceremonies.

It’s central to our right of self-determination. As Indigenous peoples we have our own lands, our own laws, our own languages, our own peoples and our own identifiable forms of government – five elements that are internationally recognized for the right to self-determination.

Our languages are fundamental to self-determination. So when someone asks “why do we need languages legislation?” We need a law that says statutory funding to revitalize and preserve our languages is a requirement. It cannot be taken away at a whim.

We are working towards having that legislation drafted and introduced in Parliament next year, and passed by Parliament before the next federal election. And we will get it done.

Now, I want to talk about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Families who have waited decades are still waiting. We share their concerns.

The Assembly of First Nations has made many offers to support the Inquiry, because the work is so important, and we want to see it succeed for the families. We’ve invited the Commissioners to speak at this Assembly. We are pleased that two of them are able to join us, Michèle Audette and Brian Eyolfson.

We wanted to invite them here because many of you – Women, Chiefs, Elders, and our Young People – are directly affected. Too many of our people have lost loved ones – grandmothers, mothers, Aunties, sisters, cousins, friends. This is not simply a policy matter for us. This is about our families.

We need to support the work of these Commissioners and their staff. We need to pray with them, hold them up, help them. And there is no more powerful way than with prayer and ceremony.

Yes, we want to make sure the families are not forgotten. The families must be front and centre. Yes, we want to help improve communications. And that’s why the Commissioners are here.

The work of the Inquiry is so important. It must succeed. And we will continue to lend our support.

Action – that is our watchword. That is our focus.

On every file that touches the rights or the wellbeing of First Nations – languages, environment, climate change, housing, health care, clean water, education, mental wellness, justice and policing, fire prevention, First Nations rights – action is what we are seeking.

Before I close, I want to return to our theme – “Our priority: Our Children.”

I cannot open this Assembly without talking about the losses we have all grieved, the losses of the young ones who chose to end their lives by their own hand.

We grieve and we are angered when we hear the statistics – that the leading cause of death for a First Nations person under the age of 44 is self-harm. I don’t think there is anyone among us who has totally escaped the shock of loss of a loved one or a friend or relative or someone we’ve known.

We know that solutions must come from within our Nations.

As leaders, we cannot be afraid to talk about what’s happening to our children and among our families. We are all too well aware of the causes.

The intergenerational effects of the Residential Schools system. Colonization and loss of control of our governments and our lives. The lateral violence. The depression. Substance abuse to numb the pain. Loss. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Incest.

These are ugly words. But we cannot be afraid to speak them. We cannot be afraid to listen when someone says them.

We must create safe places for those who want to break free of abuse, be that in their schools, in their community, or in their own home.

Our children are paying with their lives for generations of human rights violations, oppression, neglect and abuse, loss of culture, loss of language, loss of hope.

We call on the federal government to work more closely with First Nations and First Nations leadership on First Nations-led solutions – not only for mental health supports but for the infrastructure and community services so that our children and young people live in places that they are proud of and where they can be all who they can be.

As leaders we can bring people together. And we can help to nurture healing for ourselves, for our children and for future generations – getting our young people connected to their languages, our culture and ceremonies, and back to the land.

And to our young people – you matter. You are loved. You are important. You are special. And you have great gifts the Creator has given you.

All young people need hope.  And I witnessed that hope, this past week – last week at the North American Indigenous Games. The energy, the pride, not only showcasing their talents in sports, culture and recreation, but building relationships. More than 5,000 young people showing their pride in who they are as First Nations people.

I hold up the leaders, the organizers, the host Nations, the parents and especially the young people who represented their people with pride, honour and dignity. I acknowledge the territory that won the Games: British Columbia.

This was a display of Indigenous strength and endurance that captivated the continent.

My last points, Chiefs.

Canada did celebrate a birthday a few weeks ago. And we participated as First Nations peoples. Not so much to celebrate the birthday but more to recognize that in spite of the genocide of the residential schools, in spite of the colonization, oppression and control of the Indian Act – we’re still here as First Nations peoples.

And we’re getting stronger.

And in what is now Canada, the best story is yet to be written.  And it’s all of our children and all of our grandchildren who will write the story of the next 150 years.

I look forward to speaking with you during this Assembly.

I value your wisdom and value your guidance.