Trudeau quashes call from AFN’s Bellegarde to begin Constitutional talks on Indigenous rights

The prime minister said his government’s energy and attention would be better spent on its stated priorities instead of “Constitutional squabbles.”

(Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde a the AFN winter chiefs assembly last Tuesday. APTN/File)

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday slammed the door shut on a call from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde to begin talks on reopening the Constitution to clearly define the place of Indigenous rights within the Canadian federation.

On Friday, after Indigenous leaders were excluded from a meeting between Ottawa and the provinces on a new climate plan, Bellegarde said it was time to begin talks on reopening the Constitution.

On Monday, during a year-end media conference in Ottawa, Trudeau quashed any notion his government would entertain such a request. The prime minister said his government’s energy and attention would be better spent on its stated priorities instead of “Constitutional squabbles.”

Trudeau said his government is committed to “concrete and tangible ways” to improve the relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous peoples.

“We will be giving significant opportunities to Indigenous peoples to succeed, investments in education that…will close the parity gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students…health care and outcomes…look at challenges around social and community determinants of success,” said Trudeau. “I think there’s no sense that we have exhausted all concrete and practical approaches to improving this relationship in the immediate and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

The Constitution, through Section 35, recognizes Aboriginal and treaty rights. However, Section 35 does not define Aboriginal and treaty rights.

First Nations, Inuit and Metis are not recognized as an order of government under the Constitution, meaning any lawmaking authority a community has either flows from the Indian Act or from federal legislation enacting a modern-day treaty.

There is a tension in how Section 35 fits within the the federal and provincial Constitutional division of powers.

“Until that Constitution is fixed, we will continue to be excluded,” said Bellegarde, last Friday.

While the Supreme Court of Canada has issued several historic rulings on further defining Section 35 rights, Bellegarde said the matter is far from clear.

“It’s still a grey area whether it’s a full box of rights or an empty box of rights,” said Bellegarde.

Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard said Friday he would support a reopening of the Constitution on the issue of Aboriginal rights as long as negotiations included discussions on the recognition of Quebec — something former prime minister Brian Mulroney tried to accomplish through the failed Meech and Charlottetown accords.

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with a file from The Canadian Press