Climate change a top federal election priority for First Nations, says Bellegarde

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde announce the organization's election priorities Sept. 9 in Ottawa. Photo: Justin Brake/ATPN.

Climate change is a top priority for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) as Canadians prepare to head to the polls in next month’s federal election.

On Monday AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said of all the things his organization would like to see from federal parties heading into the election, they want “a commitment, first of all, to Mother Earth — to our natural world — and a promise to the next seven generations.”

He also named health care, education and clean water as other election priorities, but said addressing the climate crisis and respecting Indigenous rights go hand in hand and provide a path toward closing the gap on other issues.

Bellegarde made the announcement during a press conference at Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery, the same place where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June that Canada would proceed with the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) despite resistance from First Nations along the pipeline route.

Bellegarde has maintained in recent months that while he believes in addressing the climate crisis, he also supports First Nations’ right to invest in the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands.

Trudeau’s June 18 Trans Mountain announcement came just 24 hours after his government declared a climate emergency.

He has repeatedly stated that expanding fossil fuel infrastructure is a way out of Canada’s dependency on oil.

In July the AFN also declared a climate emergency and demanded federal and provincial leaders to “take urgent and transformative” action on climate change.

Last year the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the world has little more than a decade to reduce carbon emissions below pre-industrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change, including intensifying extreme weather like droughts fires and hurricanes.

One of the report’s lead authors, Kirsten Zickfield, said in January that expanding the Alberta oil sands could hinder that prospect.

“If we build new fossil fuel infrastructure now, which will lock us into carbon emissions for decades, it will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to keep warming below 1.5 degrees,” the Simon Fraser climate science professor said during a press conference in Vancouver.

While Bellegarde didn’t specifically reference Trans Mountain on Monday, he hinted at the need to move beyond oil.

“We have to develop a vision of environmental stewardship that is global and holistic, that takes us beyond existing targets and timelines towards a sustainable future for our children, grandchildren and beyond,” he said.

He also said respecting Indigenous rights is a pathway to finding climate solutions.

Bellegarde suggested Canada’s failure to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is one such hindrance.

The declaration “says that all impacted parties need to agree to proposed project or development before it begins. And if it proceeds, it does so in a way that respects our rights and our traditional territories,” he said.

“Upholding that standard would prevent the conflicts and court cases we’re seeing today. It would ensure everyone is treated fairly, and it would lead to greater economic prosperity for everyone.”

In 2015 Trudeau campaigned on a promise to implement the UNDRIP, but then failed to introduce legislation during its mandate.

Instead, Cree MP Romeo Saganash introduced a private members’ bill that, if passed, would have compelled Canada to ensure its laws aligned with the global minimum human rights standards for Indigenous peoples.

But that bill, C-262, was stalled by Conservative senators after being passed in the House of Commons. It died in the senate earlier this summer.

“We expect the next government to implement U.N. Declaration through legislation that is at least as strong as Bill C-262,” Bellegarde said Monday.

Citing new child welfare and Indigenous languages legislation, the national chief said four years of Liberal governance has brought “significant progress and impact,” but that “there’s more work to do.”

The national chief also called for changes to Canada’s legal systems.

“We want sweeping reforms to Canada’s legal system so it truly becomes a just system and not just a court of laws,” he said, citing the cases of Colten Boushie and Jon Styres.

“We need sweeping changes to ensure justice and legal systems address racism and discrimination.”

Responding Monday, the federal Green Party issued a news release supporting the AFN’s election priorities.

“A Green government will respect Indigenous sovereignty over self-defined and self-governed lands – whether First Nations, Métis or Inuit – and will respect all rights that their title to land entails, including the right to stewardship,” the statement says.

With the writ expected to drop any day, only the NDP have released their election platform.

The party’s “New Deal for People” promises a co-developed “national action plan for reconciliation” based on UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, “to ensure that Canada’s laws, policies, and practices are consistent with Canada’s human rights commitments – including cultural rights, land rights, and rights to self-determination and self-government,” according to the NDP website.

The party has also promised to “replace mere consultation with a standard of free, prior, and informed consent for Indigenous communities affected by government policies – including for all decisions affecting constitutionally protected land rights, like energy project reviews.”

In June Trudeau said his government’s engagement with First Nations on TMX represented his definition of free, prior and informed consent.

“It is engaging, looking with them, listening to the issues they have, and responding meaningfully to the concerns they have wherever possible,” he explained.

Last week the federal court of appeal announced it would hear six new appeals on TM from First Nations, including the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations, who say they do not consent to the pipeline.

“We must promise to build a new economy…for the future of our planet,” Bellegarde said Monday.

“We have to promise to care for the lands that feed us, and renew our original promise to one another to mutually share and benefit from the lands and resources.”

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