OTTAWA The Assembly of First Nations’ annual winter gathering wrapped up in the nation’s capital Thursday with a bevy of federal party leaders, ministers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau making a flurry of promises to advance reconciliation in Canada.
“The ability to come gather with you here, to hear from you directly, the ability also to move forward with … a framework for us to engage on your priorities, follow up on your plans, your steps, your challenges, the things you want to work on first, foremost and more: these are the things that we are there to do,” Trudeau told those attending the Special Chiefs Assembly in downtown Ottawa.
“We’re going to stick with you and we’re going to learn from you. And we will continue to move, not as fast as I’d like — certainly not as fast as you’d like — but we’re going to try and get it right every step of the way.”
First Nations chiefs from across the country have congregated in Canada’s capital this week to hash out strategies, outline priorities and debate resolutions critical to their communities.
Trudeau faced questions from a handful of chiefs, which included calls to release more records and documents tied to Canada’s horrific residential school system.
“We are trying to release absolutely everything. We’ve scoured, we’ve gone through, we’re pressing partners and religious leaders to release … everything to the Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg,” the prime minister said.
His comments came several hours after a series of resolutions dealing with the legacy of the government- and church-funded schools hit the assembly floor.
Right before those resolutions were debated, event organizers played a pre-recorded video of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, in which the longtime politician said he was “still learning” about issues facing First Nations communities.
“I understand that there are a lot of wrongs to right, whether it’s the horrors of the residential school system, or the ongoing injustices of failure to deliver clean drinking water or adequate housing,” Poilievre said.
His speech was followed by Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod taking to the microphone and stating: “Please do not ever again put a video like that ahead of our residential school survivors.”
Back in 2008, Poilievre was roundly criticized for questioning whether survivors — due to receive an formal apology from the federal government later that same day — should be compensated for the abuse they suffered. Poilievre told a radio program that instead “we need to engender the values of hard work,” apologizing the next day for comments he admitted were “hurtful and wrong.”
The package of resolutions concerning survivors was ultimately adopted, including a resolution calling on Ottawa, the Pope and King Charles III to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, and another that would ask the federal government to compensate survivors “who were not reimbursed for the legal fees that they incurred by bringing their individual residential school claims through the courts.”
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Also adopted Thursday was an emergency motion condemning the Liberal government’s latest gun control legislation, given that long guns used by First Nations hunters exercising their treaty rights to hunt and harvest could be captured in amendments to the bill.
“I want you to know that any amendment … that in any way contravenes your treaty rights is an amendment that we will not support,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who addressed the chiefs earlier that morning.
Justice Minister David Lametti — one of four Liberal cabinet ministers who spoke Thursday — also said Ottawa has a “significant task” over the next year-and-a-half to address systemic racism and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
Many of the resolutions tasked with handling justice issues in First Nations communities were left unaddressed by the time the assembly concluded: chiefs were frequently tied up in procedural matters that left little time to push through more than 70 motions on the table.
One of them called on Ottawa to introduce Indigenous policing legislation that would give First Nations complete control over their own justice systems. Indigenous police services are currently funded through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program and, while costs are split between provinces, territories and the federal government, services are still regularly underfunded.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said work on tabling a bill that would enshrine Indigenous policing as an essential service is “well underway,” though it has faced delays and is now expected to surface sometime next year.
Thursday’s proceedings came one day after chiefs joined forces on a combined resolution Wednesday night, asking the federal government to “immediately” and appropriately compensate a more comprehensive group of children and families discriminated against by Canada’s underfunded on-reserve child welfare system.
Another combined resolution adopted Thursday focused on long-term reforms to child and family services and to Jordan’s Principle, which prioritizes helping First Nations children in cases where different levels of government argue over who should pay for the services.
Both resolutions are tied to a proposed $40-billion final settlement agreement, which was announced early this year in an effort to end a prolonged legal battle between Ottawa and other parties concerning thousands of victims harmed by the system.
“Canada should not have to be forced to do the right thing through legal action, although that has been an effective if not lengthy path,” Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said.
Hajdu said she ran into Cindy Blackstock — head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the person who first filed a human rights complaint alongside the assembly about the discrimination — outside the main assembly hall.
“She told me when I first talked to her a year ago that I was her 16th minister of Indigenous Services,” Hajdu said, as Blackstock nodded from the audience. “I hope that I’m her last. I hope that we get this deal completed.”
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
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