First Nations leaders are welcoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to revamp the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, but some Quebec chiefs fear their province’s obstructionist approach to self-determination could hinder the process.
Self-governance requires access to lands and resources, which falls under provincial jurisdiction, and Indigenous leaders have serious concerns about the willingness of Quebec to go along with the federal government, said Ghislain Picard, regional head of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador.
“We were always faced with a (provincial) government that does as little as it can to advance this whole notion of Indigenous rights and Indigenous title,” Picard said, adding that some Indigenous groups in Quebec have been at the negotiating table for up to 40 years.
Picard’s comments came following a meeting of Quebec and Labrador chiefs where several federal ministers shed more light on the Liberal government’s proposal to create a new legislative framework aimed at recognizing and implementing Indigenous rights.
Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said consultations will include rethinking what constitutes a nation, a term whose current definition dates back to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the mid-1990s.
Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister, Geoffrey Kelley, said his government had little warning before the proposed framework was announced but is prepared to come to the table.
“We only have the broad outline of what they intend on doing through the course of this year, but Quebec is more than willing to participate in this new approach,” he said in an interview.
Kelley defended his government’s track record on empowering Indigenous governments, pointing to the school boards, health agencies and regional police forces that exist in some Cree and Inuit communities.
Quebec has a role to play in enhancing Indigenous autonomy within areas of provincial authority, including health, natural resources and education, he said.
“Children leave schools in their communities and come to high schools or colleges or universities in the Quebec system, so obviously we can do a much better job of sharing and co-ordinating responsibilities in that area.”
The federal government recognizes 634 Indian bands in Canada, which fall within 50 to 60 First Nations.
In her keynote address to Quebec Indigenous leaders, Bennett described the treaty negotiation process as flawed in the way it pits the government against Indigenous groups through long and costly court battles. She stressed First Nations should not have to surrender or extinguish their rights in exchange for land or money.
“We believe that rights exist,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to fight for those rights in court.”
While developing a new framework will not involve reopening the constitution, Bennett acknowledged that some of the powers under consideration fall under the purview of the provinces.
“There is no question that the collaboration and co-operation of provinces and territories will be imperative,” she said in an interview.
The minister flew to Atlantic Canada on Thursday to begin the consultation process.
Trudeau has said the new legislative framework, to be unveiled later this year, will help First Nations who are interested to reach self-government and break out of the Indian Act, which Bennett described as a straitjacket.
“We want your rights protected, but not in that paternalistic way that the Indian Act still restricts you,” she said.