(Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould meets with media at the AFN gathering in Regina. Photo: Larissa Burnouf/APTN)
APTN National News
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Tuesday said First Nations need to prepare for a future that has been set into motion by the Justin Trudeau government that will permanently alter their relationship with Canada.
Speaking to Assembly of First Nations-member chiefs in Regina, Wilson-Raybould said First Nations need to prepare for a future where Indian Act bands are done away with, opening the door to more traditional governance where communities are grouped by nations.
“Who are the rights-holding people being recognize, and what will you establish as your political and governing institutions? If not the colonial imposed institutions for administration of Indians living on reserves under the Indian Act, then what?” said Wilson-Raybould, who spoke during the AFN’s annual general assembly. “In considering our government’s commitment to a distinctions based approach to recognition, how will your nation and Indigenous government be organized? What is your territory? Is it shared with another nation and to what extent?”
Wilson-Raybould said she is already beginning to alter Ottawa’s internal machinery which was the main aim of the 10 principles unveiled Friday that will now govern Canada’s side of its relationship with Indigenous peoples.
“They are explicit in rejecting certain long-standing federal positions—such as the focus on extinguishment, surrender or denial of rights,” said Wilson-Raybould. “They are a start, as the government needed to tell itself, internally, how to act. In this sense, the principles, chiefs, are not really directed at you, but rather for federal officials and the bureaucracy, to begin shifting decades-old patterns of internal behaviour to a new reality. They will evolve over time as need be.”
With Ottawa currently reviewing all its laws and policies to ensure they comply with Section 35 of the Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and work underway to create a new legislative framework to implement the international document, Wilson-Raybould told chiefs the time was now to seize the moment.
“Some of you may not believe this is really happening. To those of you who think this way, I can tell you, under the leadership of our prime minister and from my seat, it is happening,” said Wilson-Raybould. “I also know that the potential of this moment will only be realized if you help advance it, fight for it, and are deeply involved in driving the change.”
Wilson-Raybould said First Nations don’t need to reject Canada, but can thrive within it.
“I am aware there are some who say they do not recognize Canada as a state, so how can our rights be recognized by it? As a proud Kwakwaka’wakw woman and also a proud Canadian, to these people I say this, while I understand your position, please do not underestimate the power of section 35 and UNDRIP,” said Wilson-Raybould. “There are many ways to be Canadian respecting different legal traditions. I believe it is within a strong and caring Canada that we as Indigenous peoples can build a future where our traditions, cultures, identities and ways of life thrive. And that the state has a role to play in supporting this objective, including through changing laws and policies and working in partnership based on recognition.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett echoed Wilson-Raybould’s message about the coming change.
“How many of you will still be under the Indian Act in 10 years?” said Bennett.
Bennett said Ottawa wants to help build Indigenous institutions, not create more programs.
“We want to partner with you on building on the strengths and assets you have in your communities,” said Bennett, in a speech to the AFN. “You have the power to determine the future of your communities.”
While the rhetoric has been soaring from the Trudeau Liberals on improving the relationship with Indigenous peoples, change has been slow in coming on the ground.
In an attempt to show that things are moving at the band level, Bennett and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde announced Tuesday the Indigenous Affairs department will no longer claw back Infrastructure funds at the end of the fiscal year beginning in 2018. This change will relieve some pressure off bands who are often rushed to push construction projects to avoid losing allotted funds. Bennett said this will eventually apply to all dollars provided to bands through contribution agreements—which govern the funding coming from Ottawa for each fiscal year.
The department is also committed to working with the AFN to change the own-source revenue requirement for operations and maintenance, which often hobbles a band’s ability to fund emergency response and water treatment.
Bellegarde also said that he expects the Trudeau government to pass legislation protecting and promoting Indigenous languages before the next federal election. He said the legislation will give Indigenous languages special status and create statutory funding to revitalize and preserve the about 58 distinct Indigenous languages that exist within the boundaries of Canada.
“In some ways, we are on the right path,” said Bellegarde, in his opening address to chiefs.
Bellegarde said examples of this “right path” include an agreement he signed with Trudeau last month that guarantees the leadership of the AFN will have permanent access to the federal levels of power along with the ongoing review of federal laws and policies.
“These meetings will be used to identify key issues and find solutions so we can break through the barriers facing our people,” he said. “Canada’s laws, written over decades to deny us those rights, must be rewritten….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 (UNDRIP).”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna spoke to the AFN assembly along with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.