Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard said Tuesday the Justin Trudeau administration’s stated desire to develop a “government-to-government” relationship with First Nations doesn’t match the Constitutional realities of Canada.
Couillard said the Constitution only recognizes two orders of government – federal and provincial — and any discussions about a government-to-government relationship with First Nations raises Constitutional questions.
“The federal government in its principles talks about government to government relations, it talks about the revenues that flow from natural resources which is a provincial jurisdiction,” said Couillard, during a press conference closing out Tuesday’s day-long first minister’s meeting.
“The Constitution only recognizes two orders of government provincial and federal. What we are saying that is if we want this type of recognition for First Nations there does not seem to be a Constitutional process,” said Couillard.
“We have been clear many, many, many times that Quebec will not participate in any Constitutional conversation unless its demands are on the table.”
Couillard was referring to the preamble of the Trudeau government’s July release of its 10 principles to guide its stated desire for a renewed Crown-Indigenous relationship.
Watch Todd Lamirande’s report on the meeting here:
In the preamble to the principles the Liberal government states it is “committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government and Inuit-Crown relationship based on recognition of rights.”
Earlier in the day, the Ontario and Quebec Assembly of First Nations claimed Couillard said during closed-door talks that the Constitution needs to be reopened to deal with issues of Indigenous rights and self-government, according to Assembly of First Nations Ontario regional Chief Isadore Day.
Couillard denied that specific interpretation of what he said.
Trudeau and the premiers met with Indigenous leaders representing First Nations, Inuit and Metis on Tuesday as part of a day-long first ministers meeting in Ottawa. Indigenous leaders were given about 90 minutes to raise their concerns at the table.
The Ontario AFN Chief Isadore Day said Couillard played the “Constitutional card” during the meeting.
“We have the Quebec premier, he says, listen we are not going to do anything until the Constitution opens up,” said Day, during a press scrum with reporters. “The premier of Quebec, he pulled the Constitutional card and said, this is where it stands in Quebec.”
Days said he felt Couillard was using First Nations to push Quebec’s own self-interest to reopen Constitutional talks.
“This is unacceptable in this day and age,” said Day. “Obviously if we have one region saying we are not going to move on self-government or Indigenous rights in our region until the Constitution opens up, those First Nations are being held hostage.”
Assembly of First Nation of Quebec and Labrador Grand Chief Ghislain Picard was also at the meeting and confirmed Day’s interpretation of the events.
“Quebec seems to be taking the position we are simply not legitimate governments in our own communities and that is unacceptable to our people,” said Picard.
“To me, we are caught in a situation where the prime minister has already said very clearly that there is no question about reopening the Constitution, so Couillard really seems to be alone in his corner unless other premiers are willing to create some kind of pressure to go in that direction.”
Quebec has never signed onto the Constitution as a result of the “Night of Long Knives” in 1982 when then justice minister Jean Chretien cut a deal that excluded former Quebec premier Rene Levesque.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney failed twice – Meech Lake and Charlottetown — to amend the Constitution and get Quebec to sign on.
Couillard, facing reelection next year, raised the Constitutional question in June, releasing a 200-page document outlining his government’s position.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he has not plan to wade into the issue.
Still, continued jurisdiction uncertainty between Ottawa, the provinces, territories and Indigenous peoples and nations emerged the subtext in statements delivered by the First Nations and Inuit representatives following their meeting with the premiers and the prime minister
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the core issue of resource revenue sharing – which is seen as a key solution to unlocking the economic potential of First Nations — was still receiving an, at best, lukewarm reception from premiers who control natural resources.
“It is mixed when you look across Canada,” said Bellegarde. “Some provinces are looking at it in segments, others are opposed to the idea.”
Bellegarde said he urged provincial premiers to continually meet with the First Nations leadership in their respective jurisdictions to sort these issues out.
“Rather than engage in legal challenges, there should be a dialogue,” said Bellegarde.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed said Inuit living within Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have a “complicated relationship” with the respective public governments.
“We still have fundamental differences when it comes to the inter-governmental table and the way Inuit interact at the federal level or at the level of the premiers and the prime minister. There are still historical barriers with Indigenous inclusion within multilateral conversations in this country,” said Obed, during a scrum with reporters. “We see public governments, whether its provinces and territories, sometimes don’t want to give up power, don’t want to imagine there is an Indigenous governance base that has Constitutional recognition that has application within the Canadian Confederacy.”
“We see public governments, whether its provinces and territories, sometimes don’t want to give up power, don’t want to imagine there is an Indigenous governance base that has Constitutional recognition that has application within the Canadian Confederacy.”
There is a tension within the Constitution between federal and provincial powers and the recognition of Aboriginal rights and titles as set out in Section 35.
The Trudeau government has taken the position that Section 35 is a “full box of rights,” meaning Indigenous rights have been defined by the Constitution and successive Supreme Court decisions.
Others argue that Section 35 is still an empty box that can only be filled by Constitutional negotiations.
Picard said Tuesday’s meetings with the premiers and prime minister again revealed the deficiency in how Ottawa, the provinces, and territories are choosing to deal with the Indigenous nations.
Beyond statements from First Nations, Inuit and Metis representatives there was little discussion around the table aside from Couillard’s intervention, said Picard.
“To me it just confirms once again that many governments at the table, I wouldn’t be able to say how many or which ones, seem to be of the opinion that they have their own agenda and we have the side agenda,” said Picard.
“We just won’t stand for it. We have to be at the table. There have been too many decisions taken that affects the lives of our people in a bilateral setting, meaning the federal government and the provinces.”
The most current example is Ottawa’s plan to legalize marijuana.
There remains deep uncertainty around whether First Nations will retain jurisdiction over the sale of marijuana on-reserve or whether they will have to strike individual deals with respective provinces.
While it wasn’t discussed during the meeting involving Indigenous, it was a primary topic in subsequent talks between Trudeau and the premieres, Day and Picard said.
“We are not there that is an example of the type of issue that needs to be addressed,” said Picard.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said the premiers and the prime minister did not even get to the issue of marijuana sales on-reserve and jurisdiction during discussions on the issue.
“It’s yet another level of complication,” said Horgan.
Horgan said Trudeau proposed marijuana revenue sharing between Ottawa and the provinces and territories.
“It’s not something we contemplated before,” he said.