APTN National News
The Assembly of First Nations regional Chief for Ontario blasted former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien for suggesting some northern First Nations may have no other hope left except to move away.
Chretien was in Ottawa Tuesday as a guest for the Senate swearing-in of seven new Senators, including Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“What we see coming out of former prime minister Chretien is a colonial narrative,” said AFN regional Chief Isadore Day.
Day said the land is intricately tied to Indigenous identity.
“To the point of Mr. Chretien, First Nations will not leave their homelands; we signed treaties,” said Day. “We’re bound to the principle of maintaining the honour on our side of the table and we simply will not leave lands where we’ve been since time immemorial.”
Chretien said Tuesday that “sometimes” First Nation communities need to be moved because “isolation” makes it difficult “to have economic activities in some of these areas.”
Chretien was the Indian Affairs minister under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau who introduced the 1969 White Paper which sought to wipe out the distinct legal status of “Indian” and absorb First Nation people into the rest of Canadian society.
The former prime minister made the statement after he was asked by reporters about what he would do about the Attawapiskat crisis.
The Cree community in Ontario’s James Bay region declared a state of emergency Saturday after recording 11 suicide attempts in a 24-hour period. Attawapiskat sits about 90 kilometres from a De Beers diamond mine.
Chretien said sometimes communities aren’t viable.
“The problem is sometimes you cannot. You know, it’s-you know, people have to move sometimes,” said Chretien. “It’s desirable to stay if they want to stay, but it’s not always possible. So you cannot have a statement that is generic. You know it’s extremely difficult. It’s one case at a time. Some, and you know, and it’s difficult culturally for them all the time.”
Chretien was prime minister from 1993 to 2003.
Ministers in the current Liberal government tried to steer clear of Chretien’s comments, dodging questions on the issue from reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday who highlighted the former prime minister made the statements on the same day the House of Commons held an emergency debate on First Nation suicide.
“You know, history is history. You can’t change history,” said Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo, an Inuk politician who represents Nunavut. “You know you have to move forward.”
When pressed on whether he thought Chretien should apologize or about the timing of the statement, Tootoo dodged.
“Why don’t you ask him that?” said Tootoo. “You can ask him on that.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett also weaved around pointed questions on the issue.
“I think that the context probably wasn’t there,” said Bennett. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. My opinion and my job is to create the hope and the opportunities for those children.”
Indigenous Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette said Chretien is just reflecting the thinking of his time.
“It is just how some people think, there are always people in society who think like that,” said Ouellette. “Chretien is a very smart guy, he comes from certain way of thinking.”
Ouellette said no matter what Chretien says, it won’t change the reality Indigenous identity is closely tied to the land.
“Indigenous spirituality is tightly wound around sacred places, where you are from, the land,” he said.
–With a file from Tom Fennario