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The Trudeau government is being urged to improve relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples after it failed to involve senior leaders in drafting a proposal to do just that.
The heads of both Canada’s national Inuit and First Nations organizations said they weren't involved in the development of 10 principles released this summer by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, that would guide the government's Indigenous law and policy review.
The government's justice minister, and its minister in charge of Indigenous relations, both told National Observer that the principles were meant to be government-focused, and consultations will occur later on.
The principles are supposed to steer the government's approach to Indigenous issues such as consent and self-determination, and are based on the Canadian constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the government said it will back through an NDP private member's bill.
Implementing the UN Declaration is among dozens of commitments that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised to implement in response to a 2015 report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which investigated decades of abuse of Indigenous people in residential schools that were set up to assimilate them.
Trudeau has made reconciliation a top priority by seeking to improve the federal government's relationship with Indigenous people.
Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the organization that represents Inuit in Canada, said the 10 new principles were a "good starting point" but he said that the current wording wasn't realistic. More specifically, he pointed to "challenges" with two of the 10 principles. He said that his organization is working with the government on this, right now.
“We’re hoping to do it through having an addendum to the 10 principles that’s more specifically focused on the Inuit reality, and can be more practical for the public service," he said in an interview in Ottawa, on the sidelines of a summit on the relationship between Indigenous peoples and government.
In a speech to the summit, hosted by the Institute on Governance, Obed explained what was wrong with the government's proposal.
The sixth principle, which states that the government recognizes that Indigenous engagement “aims to secure” Indigenous free, prior, and informed consent in making decisions affecting its territory and resources, is not consistent with the UN Indigenous declaration, he argued.
Why stop at “aims” to secure, he wondered — “why not work with us to ensure we get this right?”
Obed also questioned why the seventh principle — which states that “any infringement” of Indigenous constitutional rights “must by law meet a high threshold of justification” — was worded in the negative, rather than simply “celebrating” those constitutional rights.
He compared it to one partner in a relationship promising the other that they would only hurt them in rare circumstances.
Trudeau ministers say consultations will happen later
Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde also said AFN wasn't part of the development of the 10 principles. “We weren’t involved in developing a draft of that,” he told National Observer.
He said Obed “picked up some really good points in terms of the words within those principles,” and those will have to be built upon going forward.
He framed the principles as a government initiative that reflected recent Supreme Court decisions. “They’re the government’s principles. We’re doing our due diligence, assessment and analysis,” he said.
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was present at the summit, said she saw the principles as focused on federal officials.
"These were government principles, the way the government will work," she said on the summit's sidelines. "And then as we come towards rights recognition, then they will be very much consulted on the next step."
Asked whether the government was currently working on the issue, she said "absolutely."
Reached for comment, Wilson-Raybould’s spokeswoman Kathleen Davis said the minister saw the 10 principles as "a new starting point for engagement with Indigenous peoples."
"Through the 10 principles, the government is providing new initial direction to its officials about how to engage and work with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of Indigenous peoples, governments, laws, and rights," said Davis.
The principles are part of a transformation in relations between the federal government and Indigenous peoples, she said. "This work is ongoing and will advance through collaboration with Indigenous peoples in the upcoming months."
As for Obed's call for an "addendum" to the principles that focuses on Inuit, Davis said the minister acknowledged the principles are "evergreen" and just one step in a shift in relationships.
Ministers have been meeting with Indigenous leaders, organizations and experts as part of a "working group," said Davis, and the minister wrote all Indigenous governments across the country in September to ask about priorities going forward. "Responses are still forthcoming," she said.
"We expect the engagement on legislative and policy shifts to advance the recognition of rights will intensify in the near future."
ITK says principles don't conform to UN declaration
In the interview, Obed said he hoped there will be more participation by Inuit in the government’s ongoing law and policy review — something the government itself has promised in its mandate letters to ministers.
“We need more participation, we need more specific content within the Indigenous law and policy review,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould’s spokeswoman Davis emphasized that the government supported Bill C-262, which would require full implementation of the UN Indigenous rights declaration.
"The sixth principle speaks to the standard of consent in domestic and international law. As the government announced last week, it supports Bill C-262 regarding consistency between the laws of Canada and the minimum standards in UNDRIP," said Davis.
She reiterated that the principles were one step in transforming government conduct, and based on the constitution and the UN declaration. As for the seventh principle, she said it was "based on the 35 years of jurisprudence from the Supreme Court of Canada."
Changing the public service
Obed emphasized in his speech that a main problem with Indigenous reconciliation and the relationships between Indigenous groups and the Crown or government is how the public service and Canadian politics are expected to operate.
A good politician, said Obed, is expected to excel at “controlling the message” and occupying a space to push partisan talking points, while a good public servant is expected to defend the Crown’s interests and limit Indigenous access to ministers.
Historically inside the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, “to be a good public servant, the public service has to fight against us,” he said.
He said it was difficult for Indigenous cultures to understand how a public administration can change its policies from one government to another and develop “amnesia” about its past work. It’s “immensely frustrating,” he said.
But the perception that the interests of the Crown is in conflict with the interests of indigenous peoples is wrong, he said. “That is not the case. we want to build this country with you.”
Later, in response to a question from an audience member who identified as an Indigenous public servant, Obed added “my comments weren't meant to belittle all public servants” but just to raise the topic as an issue.
”Just think of being more human and wanting to fight for this moment of reconciliation and change,” he said, “rather than this letter of the law mentality.”
He said he’s looking for Inuit to be recognized as a fully developed “policy space,” a sort of geopolitical identity similar to how Canadians talk about regional policy spaces like Atlantic Canada.
“What we're asking for is for there to be an awakening,” he said, for the government to understand what money and policies are actually trying to accomplish.
Bellegarde urges people to write their MPs
In his speech, Bellegarde positioned Trudeau government initiatives with Indigenous relations against the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
“Nothing was happening with First Nations people with the former [Conservative] government,” he said.
“We see more light with this Liberal government” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he added, but said the window was closing fast for meaningful progress before the next federal election.
Bellegarde related the story of his decision in 2015 to begin voting in federal elections. It was a reversal for Bellegarde, who had never voted in a federal election before.
He said he changed his mind after speaking with First Nations elders, chiefs, citizens and youth. Now, he said, members of Parliament know they better listen to Indigenous concerns, or they may not get re-elected.
“Write to your member of Parliament,” he said he urges Indigenous peoples. “It’s going to help close the gap...the next 150 years, you bet, are going to be better than the last 150 years.”
Métis Nation looks to 2018 budget
Asked his take on the 10 principles, Métis Nation president Clément Chartier said he had no issue with them as they were laid out.
“I have no concern with those principles at all. I quite embrace those as guiding principles for the engagement” of Indigenous and government, he said.
Chartier said the government’s approach to Métis will be revealed when the government rolls out its 2018 budget, which he is hoping will contain a number of Métis Nation requests on housing, child care, health, and economic development.
“We do expect that there will be sensitivity in this budget to the Métis Nation specifically,” he said. “We’re looking at a number of areas where we feel there's an opportunity.”
He said that included “financial commitments” but that they were “still negotiating” on the details.
“If there’s nothing in 2018 for the Métis Nation then basically we’ll be of the understanding that there likely never will be.”
Obed says Trudeau genuine in N.L. apology
Obed raised Trudeau's formal apology to Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. over the weekend. The schools were home to beatings, sexual abuse and neglect, in addition to loss of language and culture.
“I felt that the prime minister was genuine. I felt that he does see the path forward” and his feelings of regret on behalf of the government are true, said Obed. “We all have this legacy and it doesn't make us bad people.”
Obed talked about his difficult upbringing -- what he has described previously as abuse at the hands of his father, which he has blamed on his grandparents being relocated and his father being sent to an orphanage away from his family and culture.
It was a “pretty emotional week,” he said.