Having made it his personal mission to strengthen relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with leaders of each indigenous group in mid-December and began hammering out what he said would be a path to reconciliation.
Flanked by Manitoba Metis Federation Vice President David Chartrand, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Chief Perry Bellegarde and Natan Obed, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Trudeau laid out a plan.
“First, we will create permanent bilateral mechanisms with the Assembly of First Nations and First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the four Inuit Nunangat Regions, and the Métis National Council and its governing members,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa after the meeting. “Every year we will meet to develop policy on shared priorities, and monitor our progress going forward. Similar meetings with key cabinet ministers will take place at least twice each year.”
The first of these bilateral talks is expected to occur in January with high-ranking cabinet ministers in order to make progress on a number of issues laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report last year.
Clément Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, called it a welcome announcement and said he was encouraged to see the Canadian government moving forward on its commitments to Métis and other indigenous groups.
“It is good that the Prime Minister is now confirming the structure of the bilateral talks between Canada and the Métis Nation as we move forward on section 35 rights reconciliation,” Chartier said. “This will help ensure a positive outcome for our upcoming summit with him and after that will make for a robust process involving his ministers and our leadership on an ongoing basis to deal and finally resolve long outstanding issues. I applaud the Prime Minister’s leadership on this.”
ITK President Natan Obed also praised the administration for its commitment to creating a permanent bilateral policy structure that will allow ITK a seat at the table in developing shared priorities for Inuit, Métis and Indigenous nations in Canada.
“This new structure will be the focal point for a renewed Inuit-to-Crown partnership,” Obed said, according to the Nunatsiaq News. “A unified approach is necessary to work effectively on priorities such as achieving social equity, reducing poverty, investing in infrastructure and education, and working toward reconciliation.”
For years Inuit in Canada, which account for five percent of the national indigenous population, have felt left behind within the government's framework regarding nation-to-nation relationships as First Nations issues took a front seat, according to ITK. Obed now feels their voices have been heard.
“With this announcement, we are one step closer to realizing our shared vision of a truly collaborative partnership between Inuit and the Government of Canada focused on improving the lives of Inuit,” Obed said.
However, not everyone is ecstatic about Trudeau’s most recent announcement. Amnesty International Canada is calling foul on Canada’s record to protect indigenous rights in a number of instances over the past year, including the approval of major industrial projects like the Site C dam in Northeastern British Columbia and the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project near Vancouver, which has drawn harsh criticism from indigenous leaders.
“The prime minister himself and a number of ministers in a variety of U.N. settings have spoken very positively about indigenous rights in general and have made it very clear that Canada now unconditionally accepts the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“That has reset, in many respects, how Canada is seen internationally with respect to indigenous peoples,” Neve said. “However, if all of those tremendous new positions and strong statements internationally continue to be undermined by a failure to live up to that on the national front, then that standing is going to start to erode and could erode quite quickly. It’s one more reason why it’s really important that we bridge that disconnect, because the rights of Indigenous Peoples matter in Canada, and we don’t want to see those shortcomings continue.”
Although some indigenous leaders are looking for more action regarding rights they have raised with the federal government over the past year, Bellegrade said the commitment from the Government of Canada for ongoing, bilateral negotiations on indigenous issues is a step toward reconciliation, especially when it comes to redress for former students under the residential school program.
“Reconciliation requires that we work together as partners because that is the foundation of our nation-to-nation relationship,” Bellegrade said in a statement. “The era of colonialism is ending. We all are committing ourselves to the hard work of reconciliation in honor of the former students and for our future generations.”