Resistance mounts at AFN forum in Edmonton as Canada continues with planned policy overhaul

If the Canadian government wants to review and change key policies impacting First Nations rights, they will need to include the proper rights and title holders.

That was the message hundreds of demonstrators, including chiefs, elders and youth, delivered to an Assembly of First Nations policy forum in Edmonton Wednesday, where AFN delegates discussed government’s plan to overhaul Comprehensive Land Claims, Specific Claims, Inherent Rights and Additions to Reserve Lands policies.

“The government has taken away the authority of the people, the true rights holders in Canada,” Beaver First Nation Chief Trevor Mercredi told the roughly 300 people gathered outside the Edmonton Inn and Conference Centre.

“They’re domesticating everything we own, they’re domesticating us as each day goes by.”

At issue are both the process by which the review is taking place, and a lack of trust in the federal government, which many believe is moving toward defining Indigenous rights in a way that threatens Indigenous sovereignty and jurisdiction.

Last year the Trudeau government’s efforts to develop Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework legislation hit a wall when a grassroots movement and resistance from the AFN stopped the feds in their tracks.

But some say Canada’s efforts to “domesticate” Indigenous rights under Canadian law have now moved to the policy front.

An undated document from Crown-Indigenous Relations titled, “Developing a New Rights-Based Policy: Summary of Current Approaches,” was circulated among First Nations in January.

It indicated the government hoped to have new Inherent Right and Comprehensive Land Claims policies in place by June.

About 300 grassroots people, chiefs and elders gathered in Edmonton Wednesday to oppose the federal government and AFN-led review of major policies impacting First Nations. Justin Brake/APTN.

A briefing note published jointly by the Idle No More, Defenders of the Land and Truth Campaign activist networks, which organized Wednesday’s demonstration, say the government is using a “top-down approach” by negotiating memorandums of understanding with the AFN on the policy review.

It also says the draft policy changes outlined in the government’s January document are “unprecedented in both their scope and their effects on the right of self-determination, Aboriginal Title & Rights and historic, pre-confederation Treaty rights.”

An emailed statement from Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said that, “the AFN and other partners have made it clear they require more time to co-develop the new policies.

“We fully respect that, and we will take the time necessary to replace these polices with new ones that best support them on their paths to self-determination.”

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band in B.C. said she has seen no indication from the federal government or the AFN that any policy changes would adequately recognize Indigenous land and title rights in Treaty or unceded territories.

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson says the government’s current policy reform efforts aim to “domesticate” First Nations peoples and rights. Justin Brake/APTN.

“They’re trying to domesticate us through a process, and they’ve been doing that since settlers came into our territories,” she said, pointing out the looming anniversary of the Pierre Trudeau government’s 1969 White Paper, which proposed to eliminate the Indian Act and make Indigenous Peoples regular members of Canadian society.

“It’s exactly what the government’s continuing to do,” Wilson said of the Liberals.

After several chiefs urged First Nations across Canada to resist the government’s policy overhaul plan, at least 100 demonstrators made their way past security and into the conference room.

Elders and chiefs who rallied outside addressed the AFN delegates.

Nancy Scanie, an Elder from Cold Lake First Nation in Treaty 6 territory, said the government is continuing its old ways.

“There is no reconciliation because they don’t even know where it started,” she said.

“They haven’t even consulted any of us. None, ever. They stole our land, they stole our identity.”

Holding her infant grandchild, Jody Leon from Splatsin, B.C. said if leaders proceed with the policy reforms without the consent of grassroots people they will be signing away her grandchild’s rights.

“Take a look at my grandson. Take a good look at him. This is whose rights you’re signing away. Don’t sell out his future. No consent.”

Jody Leon of Splatsin in B.C. warned First Nations leaders not to sign away the rights of younger and future generations. Justin Brake/APTN.

Leon’s plea prompted Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton to rise, saying after the 1991 resistance at Kanehsatake he would never allow anyone to sign away his people’s rights.

“Do you think what I went though, what our people went through — military pointing their guns at us, rioters, police, and all that stuff — we are now going to sell out? No god damn way,” he said.

“So please be careful what you say.”

Norton said he’s, “not a number one fan of the AFN, but I will work with the AFN when it’s necessary.”

After demonstrators and chiefs had their say, National Chief Perry Bellegarde told reporters that the grassroots people are “saying the same things we’re saying…that it has to be first nations led. It has to be the rights and title holders saying that.

“That’s what I as National Chief am saying. That’s what our AFN chiefs are saying in assembly,” he continued.

“We’re also saying that June is too tight a time frame, so we’re saying the same things. So we have to work together collectively to ensure we get things done in a proper manner.”

Minister Bennett is scheduled to address AFN delegates at the forum on Thursday.

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