‘I think everybody’s listening’: Chiefs in Quebec get ready to sit down with province

Premier says he’ll be more personally involved with meetings.

Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister says he’s committed to making one announcement a week until Christmas to concretely address the findings of the Viens Commission Inquiry – something his predecessor was criticized for lagging on.

Sylvie D’Amours was replaced as Indigenous Affairs minister by Lafreniere in mid-October after an outcry from chiefs in Quebec over the lack of progress throughout her two-year mandate.

“We had almost like a two-year void, where more often than we would like, we were forced to react,” Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Ghislain Picard told reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s never a comfortable position to have to criticize or be on the offensive,” Picard added.

The latest announcement made by Lafreniere on Tuesday morning involved the creation of a new political working group to hold regular “nation-to-nation” meetings with First Nations leaders on issues that concern them.

Premier Francois Legault is personally agreeing to meet more regularly with the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) for a “political roundtable” on Indigenous issues, according to Lafreniere.

“This is important to us,” he said.

The announcement was made in Montreal alongside Picard, who will co-chair the group. It will report directly to Legault and to the other chiefs in Quebec. 

“Yes, they’re very complex issues,” Lafreniere explained. “A lot of people refer to my background as a police officer, but I think it’s more as a firefighter that I use my background.

“There are a few fires here and there,” he added.

Lafreniere hopes leaders will ultimately meet on a weekly basis, but the specifics of what the group will do, who will sit on it and how often it will meet, will be decided in the coming weeks.

As the AFNQL sees it, there is no shortage of topics to discuss.

“I think the minister has made it a point in the last few weeks to get engaged with nations directly, and I think everybody’s listening,” Picard explained. “And at the same time I don’t think we should be limiting ourselves because the workload is very large.”

While Picard welcomed the announcement as good news, he says he wants to ensure all chiefs in Quebec feel represented at the discussion table.

“We need to have that conversation with our chiefs,” Picard said. “Ten nations, 41 communities, different realities, different priorities as well. It’s a matter for us in the next coming weeks to make that determination: what’s the role of the table ultimately? But for the collective.”

However, Picard said the group would not supplant any of the individual discussions between First Nations groups and the government, but would rather serve as a “convergence point” and a way for First Nations to get notice of upcoming legislation that could affect them.

For three consecutive weeks, Lafreniere has announced investments and initiatives meant to improve on-the-ground realities for the Indigenous peoples of Quebec – ones specifically identified in the Viens Commission Final Report.

The report, released in October 2019, found rampant discrimination against First Nations and Inuit in almost every vein of the province’s public services – including health care, youth protection services, and policing.

The first announcement made following Lafreniere’s appointment to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio was a $15 million dollar investment to ensure safety training for health care managers, as well as training of Indigenous hospital “navigators” over a five-year period.

The following week, Quebec announced a $3 million boost for the Native Friendship Centre of Joliette.  A new facility – including an improved clinic and daycare centre – will open in 2021, according to Lafreniere.

The announcement of a working group comes one day after the release of ’Joyce’s Principle,’ a list of measures proposed by the Atikamekw Nation to ensure equitable access to health care.

That document is named after Joyce Echaquan, the mother of seven who died in hospital in Joliette – an hour northeast of Montreal – in September after filming staff using derogatory slurs against her.

Picard said tackling the issues raised by the document would be “priority number 1” for the new group.

“It’s very clear for us that the entirety of chiefs support the principle, and the concept has support at the federal level,” Picard said.

“We hope the provincial government will react and respond to this.”

Lafreniere said the document could help guide the government as it works to improve the health-care system.

Joyce’s Principle, we’re taking it, we’ll look at it, analyze it and see exactly how we can respond in a concrete way. It will help us with our announcements, will help us on the ground with how we can apply it,” he said.

Also up for discussion, as per Picard: the Algonquin Nation’s continued demand for a moose hunting moratorium, and following the deaths of two children in the Huron-Wendat community of Wendake, reform of the province’s child welfare system.

-With files from The Canadian Press 

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