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Supreme Court visits with Indigenous groups ‘a step towards reconciliation’: grand chief

Indigenous and French-language leaders say the Supreme Court of Canada’s historic visit to Winnipeg is a step forward for reconciliation and respect for minority rights.

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner, left, stands alongside Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Friday morning. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Indigenous and French-language leaders say the Supreme Court of Canada’s historic visit to Winnipeg is a step forward for reconciliation and significant gain for minority groups.

“The fact that, you know, in their visit they wanted to engage First Nations and that they want to have meaningful conversations … I think it’s very important,” Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said on Friday.

“It’s a step towards reconciliation.”

Dumas was one of the Manitoba Indigenous leaders who met with the nine justices of the Supreme Court Friday morning, on the final day of the justices’ week-long visit.

The justices met with Dumas at The Forks, followed by a meeting with Franco-Manitoban leaders at Université St. Boniface and the Manitoba Metis Federation at the Fort Garry Hotel.

Dumas said he sent a letter to the court to request the meeting over a year ago, when he first learned the trip was being considered.

The grand chief said he was encouraged by what he heard from Chief Justice Richard Wagner about relations with First Nations.

“I heard his words and I believe that he’s sincere and he is listening,” Dumas said.

“Now I think it will be up to us to ensure that people are … reminded of their words and we give them opportunities to show how we can move forward.”

‘A question about the future’

The court sat for two hearings in Winnipeg earlier this week, the first time in its 144-year history the court has sat outside of Ottawa.

The first concerned the impact of judicial delays in decision-making on Canadians’ right to a fair and speedy trial.

The second, heard Thursday, centred on a case brought forward by a B.C. French-language school board. It alleges that the province violated constitutionally guaranteed rights to minority-language education by underfunding its own French-language education system.

The Supreme Court sat for two hearings in Winnipeg earlier this week, the first time in its 144-year history the court has sat outside of Ottawa. In a news release Friday, the court said it hopes to make visits to other Canadian cities a regular event. (Supreme Court of Canada Collection )

Ariane Freynet-Gagné, vice-president of the Conseil jeunesse Manitoba — the organization representing the province’s French-speaking youth — said Friday morning it was significant for the francophone community in Manitoba to see the case in Winnipeg.

“I think it’s huge for us to listen to it here in Manitoba,” Freynet-Gagné said, following speeches from Chief Justice Wagner and Franco-Manitoban leaders.

In her own speech, Freynet-Gagné told the justices she’s concerned about the availability of resources to support Franco-Manitoban education.

“We as a community also have … our struggles with getting our schools funded.”

Angela Cassie, vice-president of the Société de la francophonie manitobaine, said she hopes the justices take home an understanding of how vibrant and diverse Manitoba’s francophone community is.

“This isn’t a question of history. This is a question about the future,” she said. “Living in a minority situation has a lot of challenges, but there’s a lot of richness here as well, and I think that’s what they heard.”

Visit shows respect: Métis leader

The justices finished the morning with lunch with the Manitoba Metis Federation at the Fort Garry Hotel, before heading to a Q&A with University of Manitoba law students, which was closed to media.

“The Supreme Court of Canada, coming into our homeland, [is] sending a message loud and clear to show respect as they enter our home, to sit down and meet with our government to ask about trying to want to learn more about who we are as a people,” Metis Federation President David Chartrand said.

The court made a landmark ruling in 2013 that found the federal government failed to follow through on a promise to the Métis people over 140 years ago, in response to a legal challenge by the federation.

The court also ruled on Métis and Indigenous rights in 2016, when it extended federal government responsibilities to approximately 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status Indigenous people who are not affiliated with specific reserves.

Last year, the court ruled against a challenge from an Alberta First Nation that sought to require consultation from Parliament before passing any legislation that could affect Indigenous and treaty rights.

“I believe very clearly, from our perspective, we may not always get what we want, but at least we’ll get … clarity of what it is we’re seeking,” Chartrand said Friday. “And it may not always be in our favour, but if it’s ruled, we will respect it.”

In a news release Friday, the court said it hopes to make visits to Canadian cities outside Ottawa a regular event in the future.

“The more information we give to people, the less biases they will have,” Wagner said Friday morning. “That’s the start of a better communication and a better future.”

The Supreme Court of Canada concluded a historic visit to Winnipeg by meeting with Indigenous and Franco-Manitoban leaders on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. 2:28

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