The Canadian Press
OTTAWA _ Canada must change the Constitution to ensure Indigenous leaders can be in the room when the prime minister sits down to do serious business with the provinces and territories, the head of the Assembly of First Nations said Friday.
“Until that Constitution is fixed, we will continue to be excluded,” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
Indigenous leaders are frustrated at being invited to Friday’s meeting with the premiers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, but excluded from the afternoon session on climate change.
They argue that Aboriginal Peoples and their traditional way of life suffer some of the worst effects of climate change, despite having next to nothing to do with the cause, and they should be fully involved in decisions on a solution.
The challenge right now is that the Constitution does not recognize First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders as representatives from an order of government, said Bellegarde, who acknowledged Aboriginal priorities were discussed during the morning meeting.
Bellegarde pointed out that Section 35 of the Constitution has recognized and affirmed the rights of Aboriginal Peoples since 1982, but they have had to go through the courts to get those rights clarified and enforced.
“It’s still a grey area whether it’s a full box of rights or an empty box of rights,” Bellegarde said.
Bellegarde is calling for a first ministers conference devoted entirely to Section 35, so they can “give true meaningful effect to the right to self-determination” and get serious about building a nation-to-nation relationship.
“And until that’s done, the feds and the provinces can have their meeting,” he said.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said his province would support the desire of Aboriginal Peoples to be recognized more formally by the constitution, but any talks on the matter would have to also mean allowing reopening negotiations on the recognition of Quebec.
At the closing news conference Friday evening, Trudeau made a point to thank Indigenous leaders for the part they did play in the gathering and discussions on climate change.
“Every person in the room, whether they represented First Nations, the Inuit, the Metis nation, provinces, territories, or Canada as a whole had a chance be heard and have their viewpoints considered as we made important decisions together,” said Trudeau.
Bellegarde said he was pleased to be included at the morning session.
“No matter what the table is, we need to meaningfully involved,” Bellegarde said.
Clement Chartier, president of the Metis National Council, said it was also important to point out that the federal government recognized what they were bringing to the meeting.
“We’re not being dealt with as mere advocacy bodies or organizations, but as representatives of Indigenous peoples and nations,” he said.
“We are there. We’re not all the way there, but we have a good step forward to get really meaningful engagement,” he said.