IPolitics – Anna Desmarais
Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett went on a whirlwind trip to Vancounver at the end of July to sign a series of agreements with west coast Indigenous groups.
The agreements are Memorandums of Understanding through which the government promises to work with a specific Indigenous group or a group of chiefs on important issues for their communities. Every agreement is different – covering health, education, infrastructure and housing or making a general agreement to begin working together on the path to Indigenous self-governance in Canada.
The Crown’s agreement with the Secwépemc Nation and the province of British Columbia, signed on July 23, sets out a framework for a government-to-government relationship where both parties work toward giving the Secwépemc Nation “jurisdiction over children and families.”
iPolitics did not receive a reply from the nation by the time of publication, but tribal chief Kukpi7 Wayne Christian expressed his optimism in a statement with his government counterparts.
“This MOU represents reconciliation in action,” he wrote. “The MOU sets a foundation to rebuild our governance – our families.
“By the utilization of our language and laws we will ensure Secwépemc Identity for the next ten thousand years. Our children Our Jurisdiction Our Laws Our future.”
However, the minister’s timing is interesting. Two days later, Bennett made an appearance at the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting right before their election for national chief. She was there to speak to Alberta regional chief Marlene Poitras and her caucus of chiefs from the province. Her appearance sparked outrage from Indigenous leaders and academics across the country, who accused her of election interference.
The minister refused to address the allegations directly the next day. Instead, she delivered a speech explaining the government’s plans to encourage self-governance of Indigenous peoples across the country.
“That’s what we really want to talk about this morning,” Bennett said. “How do we permanently get Ottawa out of the way? As we heard from candidates on Tuesday, the status quo is not okay.”
After her morning meeting at the AFN, Bennett signed another memorandum of understanding with the Metis Nation of British Columbia to “renew and strengthen their government-to-government relationship” and promote a shared vision of reconciliation.
Article three of the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) says the right of self-determination for Indigenous peoples means “they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
When the Declaration was presented to the United Nations in 2007, Canada was one of four countries who did not sign on to the document that solidifies the rights of Indigenous peoples under international law.
UNDRIP got recognition from the government in 2010 under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
However, the implementation of the Declaration hasn’t made its way through federal institutions just yet. Bill C-262, an Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with UNDRIP, passed its third reading before the House of Commons with a resounding vote from MPs. It is now on its second reading before the Senate, who will revisit the legislation in the fall.
Taking over from his predecessor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was supported by Indigenous peoples on a promise to change the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples by creating a nation-to-nation relationship.
One of the tactics created by the Trudeau government is to hold discussion tables with groups of Indigenous peoples in order to “explore new ways of working together” on an equal relationship. At the end of the discussion, federal and Indigenous counterparts sign the memorandums of understanding.
Dr. Hayden King, executive director of Indigenous think-tank Yellowhead Institute, said these consultations are “superficial” at best.
“I wouldn’t say they’re getting a seat at the table, they’re being given a seat off to the side,” he said. “I think part of the problem is that Indigenous people want a seat at the table and the federal government is saying you can sit at the little kids’ table … and that’s where the consultation is happening,” he said.
Boycotts from Indigenous groups on important consultations continue to plague the federal government. In 2017, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis Nation of Canada refused to attend the premier’s meeting in Edmonton because they were not formally included as speakers on the government’s agenda.
In the case of the discussion tables, it’s difficult to know how much consultation is actually being provided or steered by Indigenous groups when the discussions are confidential, King continued.
The website dedicated to the discussion tables says “the priorities identified by Indigenous groups are the starting point for these discussions,” and can focus on one area of interest or many issues.
The agreements can also be limiting in some ways, Indigenous lawyer Jean Teillet told iPolitics. Most of the accords signed, she said, do not include the provinces who pay a key role in enforcing the treaty relationships on the ground.
The agreements are also not legally binding and could be repealed by a succeeding government. But still, Teillet said she believes the government is headed in the right direction by starting the conversations in the first place.
“I think it’s a good thing – it’s the right idea to start these kinds of agreements,” she said. “There’s so much to do to try and undo 160 years of destruction and thats not going to happen right away. That’s what the agreements are all about.”
The next step is to create a protocol agreement with more detail on how the federal government will directly assist Indigenous communities. The detailed outline of federal government contributions should inform a formal, finalized agreement that can be legally binding, Teillet said.
Because the government has just started its conversations with Indigenous groups, Teillet said it’s too soon to tell if the discussions will become “paternalistic.”
Crown-Indigenous relations says the discussion tables will also inform the government’s new Rights and Recognition Framework that will outline the inherent treaty rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada. So far, the government claims they’ve held 60 round tables with over 320 Indigenous groups who represent 700,000 Indigenous peoples.