Justin Trudeau’s proclamations about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples are not all they appear to be. Behind the showy symbolism, the federal government is engaging mainstream Aboriginal organizations in elaborate and often secret negotiations and processes that aim to deeply undercut Indigenous peoples’ rights.
At the centre of these is a recent Liberal government memorandum with the Assembly of First Nations which has received little attention. Far from supporting an ambitious reconciliation agenda based on Indigenous peoples’ inherent rights, the agreement could in fact accelerate far-reaching threats. It needs to be understood and resisted.
On June 12, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a national political process on “shared priorities,” thereby formalizing the framework for a national AFN-Canada process, which had been the subject of negotiations since the Liberals came to power in 2015.
Sources indicate that on June 1, 2017, during an AFN executive committee meeting, a majority of the AFN executive committee voted in favour of signing the MOU. However, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day and Alberta Regional Chief Craig Mackinaw reportedly opposed the signing.
Community chiefs and grassroots Indigenous peoples should be concerned about the top-down approach of the Trudeau government to the AFN-Canada process. Apparently this is now the political framework for community chiefs to have input into the AFN-Canada Fiscal Relations process, the Federal Ministerial Law and Policy Review, and the other “shared priorities” of the MOU, specifically:
- Policing and community safety issues affecting First Nations;
- Co-development of an Indigenous Languages Act to support the preservation, revitalization and strengthening of Indigenous Languages;
- Work in partnership on measures to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including co-development of a national action plan and discussion of proposals for a federal legislative framework on implementation;
- Implementation of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada;
- Ongoing work to develop options for consideration by Chiefs-in-Assembly and federal decision-makers for a new fiscal relationship to ensure sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for First Nations governments;
- Work jointly to decolonize and align federal laws and policies with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and First Nations’ inherent and Treaty rights;
- Dialogue and planning to identify priorities and measure progress to close the socio-economic gap between First Nations and other Canadians; and
- Such other priorities as may be jointly agreed to.
Community chiefs, First Nation leaders and grassroots peoples will need to be involved, aware and assertive in order to defend their rights and interests in the face of this AFN-Canada process, which seemingly will lead to changes in program funding levels, reporting, policy and laws affecting rights, title and interests of First Nation Peoples.
It is telling to see that the AFN-Canada MOU on shared priorities isn’t even on the provisional agenda of the upcoming 38th AFN Annual General Assembly, though some may make it an issue for discussion.
The list of “shared priorities” resembles the Liberal party’s Indigenous Policy Platform of 2015. The final list is the result of negotiations with the three national Aboriginal organizations (First Nations, Inuit & Metis), as opposed to community chiefs or their First Nation citizens.
The Liberal government’s interpretation of its 2015 election promises is likely different than how many First Nations interpret or understand these promises. The MOU formalizes a top-down political process that the federal government controls and manages with an effective veto over process, agenda items, and funding.
In fact, Part IV of the AFN-Canada MOU on shared priorities provides for fiscal resources. The federal government commits to:
- provide financial support to the AFN and to regional First Nation organizations to support full and meaningful engagement with First Nations, as rights holders, with respect to the objectives of this MOU; and 2. work with the AFN to examine additional needs to achieve full and meaningful engagement of First Nations, as rightsholders.
The AFN national chief, the AFN executive committee, regional First Nation organizations and AFN chiefs’ assemblies are participating in a federally-driven process into what the federal government calls a “Cycle of Reconciliation” through a “Bilateral Mechanism” which is a secret AFN-cabinet committee where the prime minister will meet the AFN national chief annually and federal ministers will meet AFN representatives at least twice a year.
In addition to the AFN-cabinet committee, on Dec. 15, 2016, the federal government created a National Council for Reconciliation.
According to an AFN update, at a Dec.15 meeting, Minister Carolyn Bennett announced on behalf of the federal government:
a) a process to implement Calls to Action 53 to 56 that call for a National Council for Reconciliation (NCR) beginning with the appointment of six individuals to form an interim Board of Directors for the NCR; b) establishment of a reconciliation secretariat at INAC to support Canada’s work; c) $10 million to support the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation located at the University of Manitoba (Call to Action 78).
TRC recommendation 53 provides, in part: “with membership jointly appointed by the Government of Canada and national Aboriginal organizations, and consisting of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members.”
This is a new federal pan-Indigenous institution to be created by legislation. The prime minister named the former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners as members of an “interim Board,” but the mandate of this new body gives some influence on federal policy and legislation to the NRC Board so whoever else is appointed to the National Council for Reconciliation will also have some influence over federal Indigenous policy and legislation and therefore the “joint priorities” in the AFN-Canada MOU.
Looking at the federal appointment of the Murdered and Missing Women and Girls Commissioners, the NRC Board appointments may have ties to the Liberal Party of Canada and therefore be partisan, which may affect the independence of the new institution. Time will tell.
The AFN-Canada MOU national process also sets out how through the AFN Charter structure community chiefs will “work jointly” with the Federal Working Group of Ministers on the Review of Laws and Policies Related to Indigenous Peoples, which was announced on Feb. 22, 2017.
The AFN-Canada MOU on joint priorities lists #6 as [to] “work jointly [with Federal Land & Policy Review] to decolonize and align federal laws and policies with the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and First Nations’ inherent and Treaty rights.”
This sounds good but not when you take Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s “Canadian definition” of UNDRIP into account in the process. Raybould has said “adopting the UNDRIP as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to actually implement it…Ultimately, the UNDRIP will be articulated through the constitutional framework of section 35.”
INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett has also described how the Trudeau government intends to implement UNDRIP. Minister Bennett said:
We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.
By adopting and implementing the Declaration, we are excited that we are breathing life into Section 35 and recognizing it now as a full box of rights for Indigenous peoples in Canada. Canada believes that our constitutional obligations serve to fulfil all of the principles of the declaration, including “free, prior and informed consent.” We see modern treaties and self-government agreements as the ultimate expression of free, prior and informed consent among partners.
As I’m constantly pointing out in my articles, the current federal land claims (Comprehensive & Specific) policy and self-government policy are based on denial and extinguishment, not recognition and affirmation of Aboriginal and Treaty rights and are inconsistent with a fair interpretation of section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and the Articles of UNDRIP.
Unfortunately, over two thirds of the chiefs across Canada are already coopted and compromised at negotiation tables with Crown governments at what I call termination tables because the federal pre-conditions at these tables require extinguishment or conversion of pre-existing rights for new rights in “Modern Section 35 Agreements.”
Trudeau government won’t support Bill C-262
The Trudeau government has also established about 42 secret “exploratory tables,” which are described as “non-binding” discussions outside of the termination policies. These “exploratory” talks will feed into the Trudeau government’s secret cabinet committee negotiations with the three National Aboriginal Organizations representing First Nations, Inuit and Metis and a planned National Reconciliation Framework that will be controlled and managed by the Trudeau government to implement UNDRIP through domestic legislation and the federal land claims and self-government termination policies.
This will happen instead of a parliamentary process of legislative and policy review, such as the one proposed by Romeo Saganash in his Bill C-262, “An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Of course, the Trudeau government isn’t supporting Romeo Saganash’s bill because they are intent on manipulating the implementation of UNDRIP through domestic law and policy instead of changing Canadian law and policy to meet the minimum human rights standards contained in the Articles of UNDRIP. And that's why I’m saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is putting the "con" in reconciliation.