(Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde, left, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, Assembly of First Nations Elder Elmer Courchene, right, during the grand entry Tuesday to open the chiefs organization’s December assembly. Trina Roache/APTN)
APTN National News
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday his government will be moving to begin an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, start the process to strike a new First Nation education deal, lift the two per cent cap on First Nation funding, implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and review all legislation and policies impacting Indigenous rights.
Trudeau made the commitments during a speech opening the Assembly of First Nations’ yearly December chiefs assembly held at the Casino Lac Leamy in Gatineau, Que. Trudeau was the first prime minister to ever speak during the opening of an AFN assembly and the first to walk in as part of the ceremonial grand entry.
Trudeau walked in the grand entry with AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde on his right and AFN Elder Elmer Courchene on his left. The trio was flanked by two hoop dancers who swirled beside them.
During his speech, Trudeau again reiterated his commitment to renew the frayed relationship between First Nations and Canada, calling it a sacred obligation inherited from past generations and entrusted to future generations.
“During the election and the months before and in the days since, I have made a personal commitment to bring new leadership and a new tone to Ottawa,” said Trudeau. “History has shown that taking an adversarial approach is not only ineffective, it can be profoundly damaging. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the government’s relationship with First Nations, one that understands the constitutional guaranteed rights of First Nations people in Canada are not an inconvenience, but a sacred obligation.”
Trudeau also repeated his main campaign promises to the assembled chiefs in a speech that was punctuated by clapping and cheers.
The prime minister, with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on the stage behind him, said the government would announce Tuesday afternoon the first details of the promised inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.
“We have made this inquiry a priority for our government because those touched by this national tragedy have waited long enough, the victims deserve justice, their families an opportunity to heal and to be heard, we must put an end to this tragedy,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau also said his government would soon begin work on crafting a new agreement on First Nations education, a sensitive issue given the history of Indian residential schools and a costly one given the state of schools and funding for education on reserves.
“We will never impose solutions from the top down. We know that this approach is wrong and we know it doesn’t work. While we share a commitment to improving education outcomes, we believe education reforms that affect First Nation children must be led by First Nations,” said Trudeau.
The previous Conservative government attempted a $1.9 billion education, but it ran into stiff opposition and created tensions within the AFN that eventually led to the resignation of the previous national chief Shawn Atleo.
Trudeau said his government would be moving to lift the two per cent cap on program funding growth in his government’s first federal budget, expected in April. The cap was imposed by the Jean Chretien Liberal government in the 1990s and is blamed for the yawning gap in living standards on reserves compared to the rest of Canada. Trudeau also said the government would work to create a new fiscal relationship with First Nations that would ensure sustainable and consistent program funding.
Trudeau again committed to implementing the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to delve into the dark history of residential schools, by first applying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
The prime minister also repeated his promise that the Liberal government would review all federal legislation and policies that impact the rights of Indigenous peoples.
“Where measures are found to be in conflict with your rights, where they are inconsistent with the principles of governance or where they simply make no public policy sense, we will rescind them,” said Trudeau.
Wilson-Rabyould will be leading that review, said Trudeau.
The prime minister hinted that his government is considering negotiating an agreement similar to the 10 year, $5 billion Kelowna Accord the Paul Martin Liberal government struck with First Nation, Inuit and Metis leaders shortly before his government fell in 2005. The Stephen Harper Conservative government killed the deal.
“In every instance, we cannot do this alone. We need your help and leadership too. We cannot close the gaps between what First Nation experience and others without a collective and collaborative nation-to-nation approach like the one that provided the Kelowna Accord,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau is expected to meet with First Nation, Inuit and Metis leaders following the TRC release of its final report on Dec. 15.
The prime minister was given a glowing introduction by Bellegarde, who said a “warm wind” was blowing across “Turtle Island” as a result of the “sunny ways” that followed the election of the Trudeau government.
“Let me say now, I believe this prime minister has taken some important first steps in the right direction,” said Bellegarde. “Prime minister, we look forward to working together in a true spirit of reconciliation…You have reached out your hand as a treaty partner in a respectful way.”
Bellegarde’s introductory speech also focused heavily on the development of a national energy strategy, saying First Nations face a pivotal role in its eventual implementation.
“We need to find that balance, that is right for our economy and also what is right for mother earth,” said Bellegarde. “A Canadian energy strategy can only succeed with First Nations as full partners and that means being at all tables where decisions are made and shape.”
The Trudeau government plans to continue using regulatory bodies, like the National Energy Board, as the main federal agencies executing the Crown’s duty to consult on major energy projects. Bellegarde has said regulatory bodies are not adequate vehicles to meet that constitutional obligation.
The Trudeau government has stated its support for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, which will carry Alberta-mined bitumen across the country to refining facilities in Saint John, NB. The proposed Energy East pipeline is currently before the NEB.