Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde releases “Honouring Promises: 2019 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada” at a press conference in Ottawa on Sept. 9, 2019.
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Four years after the Liberals made reconciliation with Indigenous peoples a central pillar of their election campaign, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says First Nations remain optimistic about their new relationship with the federal government.
Bellegarde, who unveiled the AFN’s 2019 election priorities in Ottawa on Monday, said the Liberals have given First Nations “unprecedented” access since the 2015 election.
“Before, how many times did the prime minister ever come to an AFN chiefs’ assembly? A sitting prime minister. The answer is never,” he told reporters. “This prime minister has come three times.”
Still, Bellegarde refused to endorse any party on Monday, saying he has a good relationship with all the leaders and will work with whichever party forms the next government.
In a 16-page document titled “Honouring Promises,” the AFN has detailed its priorities over the next four years, with an emphasis on environmental concerns. The document calls for First Nations to be “full partners in the implementation of Canada’s climate plan.”
It also calls on the government to support First Nations-led environmental reviews of resource projects and impact assessment regimes. Bellegarde said all parties should agree on any proposed resource development project before it begins. “That’s called being good neighbours,” he said. “Upholding that standard would prevent the conflicts and court cases we’re seeing today.”
His comments come in the wake of a Federal Court of Appeal decision last week that will allow an appeal of the federal government’s consultation with Indigenous communities on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The appeal is part of an ongoing bid by some First Nations to prevent the project from moving forward, as they say the consultation was inadequate.
The AFN is also demanding that the next government introduce a bill that would implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canada. A private member’s bill to that effect tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash nearly passed in the spring, but died in the Senate after Conservative senators used procedural tactics to delay it.
The document further calls on the next government to implement the calls for justice of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. The AFN is also asking for sweeping changes to the criminal justice system to end the over-representation of Indigenous people behind bars.
Bellegarde applauded the Liberal government for making headway on certain Indigenous files, including the recent passage of Indigenous languages and child welfare legislation and billions in new funding for housing, health care, education and infrastructure. He also pointed to a Budget 2019 promise to forgive or reimburse $1.4 billion in loans to Indigenous groups that have taken on debt to negotiate treaties.
Still, he said there are other key issues that remain unresolved, the passage of legislation to implement UNDRIP in Canada chief among them. He also said Canada needs updated policies governing land-claim and self-government negotiations, and pointed out that 56 long-term drinking-water advisories remain in place on reserves. The Liberals have promised to lift all remaining advisories by March 2021.
“Is the gap closed yet? The answer is no,” he said. “Has there been movement? The answer is yes. You have to maintain momentum.”
In some respects, the AFN priorities differ notably from commitments the Conservatives have made, particularly regarding climate change. While the AFN document says First Nations should be involved in decisions about revenue from carbon pricing, the Conservatives have promised to scrap the federal carbon tax entirely. Conservative MPs also did not support Saganash’s UNDRIP bill in the House of Commons.
I’m going to encourage more people to vote, because now we have an impact
Pressed to weigh in on whether a Conservative government would be a step backwards for First Nations, Bellegarde said that “some of their policies aren’t as progressive as they should be.”
“I’m being very, very diplomatic, as national chiefs should be. I’ve got to work with whoever gets elected and bring about policy and legislative change,” he said. “That’s my job.”
The last election saw a historic increase in the Indigenous vote, with turnout in on-reserve polling divisions up to 61.5 per cent, compared with 47.4 per cent in 2011. Bellegarde said he wants to see that number increase again this time around. Four years ago, he told reporters he had never voted in a federal election and didn’t plan to, before changing his mind and saying it was important for First Nations people to cast ballots.
“I voted. I don’t feel any less Cree,” he said on Monday. “But I’m also a Canadian with my fundamental right to vote, and I’m going to exercise it, and I’m going to encourage more people to vote, because now we have an impact.”