An already strained relationship between First Nations and the federal government was tested further on Thursday after a group of chiefs threatened to shut down the Canadian economy if Ottawa did not withdraw Bill C-33, the First Nations education act.
An internal statement drafted by the Confederacy of Nations, dated May 14 and obtained by CBC News today, said "should Canada not withdraw and cease all imposed legislation on First Nations without our free, prior and informed consent, we will strategically and calculatedly begin the economic shutdown of Canada's economy from coast to coast."
The clash between the two sides came less than two weeks after Shawn Atleo resigned as national chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
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The Confederacy of Nations, a governing body within the Assembly of First Nations, met in Ottawa on Wednesday and again today to discuss the government's controversial First Nations education bill.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said the statement was not intended to be made public, nor was it intended to constitute a threat.
"This statement has been taken a little bit out of context," Nepinak said on Thursday afternoon.
In an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Nepinak told host Evan Solomon "this statement has not been vetted nor approved by any of us, it's been a discussion and I think it reflects some of the frustration that some of the chiefs are experiencing."
"This is an expression of the frustration of indigenous people."
The government put “on hold” Bill C-33 — its prized but controversial First Nations education bill — until the Assembly of First Nations “clarifies” its position on the bill, following the sudden resignation of Shawn Atleo as national chief for the AFN.
"We have exposed that there is a very, very broad and diverse body of indigenous people across the country who are not accepting of this bill, " Nepinak said.
The internal document, which is being referred to as "a draft," will be submitted for approval during a special chiefs assembly scheduled for May 27 in Ottawa.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told the Commons today he would not meet with a group of "rogue chiefs" until they withdrew their threat to bring the Canadian economy to a halt.
"I will meet with these people when they unequivocally withdraw their threat to the security of Canadian families, taxpayers and citizens," Valcourt said during question period on Thursday.
NDP aboriginal critic Jean Crowder asked Valcourt if he would meet with the Confederacy of Nations.
"I think that members of the House will agree that we should ask members to condemn in the strongest terms the rogue chiefs who are threatening the security of Canadians, their families and taxpayers," Valcourt said.
The minister said he doesn't think the group represents the majority of First Nations chiefs and councils.
"I trust that the good, hard-working chiefs will speak up," Valcourt said.
Chiefs speak out
Ghislain Picard, the regional chief for Quebec and Labrador who has been acting as spokesman for the Assembly of First Nations since Atleo resigned, is one of several chiefs who attended the two-day Confederacy of Nations meeting in Ottawa.
"The 'rogue' chiefs are as duly elected as he is," Picard told CBC News on Thursday.
"The minister is out of order and should apologize."
Picard acknowledged that some of the language in the statement was strong, but said it would not be the first time First Nations have used such language to get the government's attention.
He hoped the government would see this as an opportunity "to engage with First Nations in a meaningful way."
"Give us a good reason to go back and tell our people that the government of Canada is negotiating in good faith," Picard said.
Valcourt should 'resign'
Nepinak, who also attended the two-day meeting in Ottawa, took a harder line.
The grand chief from Manitoba said he was disappointed to see that Valcourt had resorted to name-calling and that the minister should step aside.
"I think the appropriate thing for this minister to do is to recognize that he's failed First Nations people in trying to advance this bill [C-33] through a manufactured consent and resign."
Nepinak told host Evan Solomon he was "extremely disappointed that the minister would come out and start making accusations and calling people names like that."
"What he has done is he has shown Canada that he has lost the handle on the file and he needs to make way for someone who is willing to take a less rigid position, someone who is willing to recognize that there is a new process that is being started by the AFN and show some respect to it," Nepinak said.
The Manitoba chief said First Nations want to get rid of Bill C-33.
"And if Bernard Valcourt is not the man to sit down with us, as he says he's not, then we need to find somebody who will."
The internal document, which has not been approved by a special chiefs assembly, also showed that the group agreed to:
- "Vehemently reject the imposition of legislation" by the federal government, in particular Bill C-33.
- Call on the Canadian government to sit down and negotiate "an alternative" to Bill C-33 including "a new fiscal transfer mechanism."
- Create a Confederacy of Nations co-ordinating committee.
- Create a working group to support the committee.
- Give the committee the power to "enter into discussions with the minister about an alternative to Bill C-33."
- Get the government to agree "to pay all costs of this meeting" and future meeting of the committee and working group,
- Instruct the AFN to "support all aspects of this Confederacy decision."
- Directs the AFN "to refrain from any discussions with the government related to Bill C-33 or other matters" being handled by the committee.
The group will reconvene on May 28 to start implementing any decisions made by the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly the day before, the internal statement said.
Read the internal statement of the AFN Confederacy of Nations: