British Columbia

Federal leaders are failing First Nations in B.C. by declining invitation to AGM, regional chief says

The British Columbia Assembly of First Nations' annual general meeting is happening this week and, while Justin Trudeau, Erin O'Toole and Jagmeet Singh were all invited to attend, not one of the federal leaders has committed to an appearance.

O'Toole, Singh, Trudeau all turned down invitation to speak at B.C. Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, pictured in 2019. Teegee says it's disappointing that Justin Trudeau, Erin O'Toole and Jagmeet Singh are not participating in the assembly's annual general meeting, which is being held less than a week before Canadians go to the polls in a federal election. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Indigenous leaders from over 200 B.C. First Nations are gathering this week to discuss issues critical to their communities — and they're upset that not one federal leader campaigning to be prime minister of a country that says it's committed to reconciliation will be joining them.

The British Columbia Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN) annual general meeting began Tuesday and runs until Thursday online. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh were all invited to deliver a short video message during the event but declined, according to a statement from the BCAFN.

Regional Chief Terry Teegee says while all three leaders have been actively campaigning in B.C. — Trudeau was in Metro Vancouver on Monday, O'Toole is in the province Tuesday, and Singh's riding is in Burnaby — refusing the assembly's invitation puts their commitment to true and lasting reconciliation in question.

"They have all paid a great deal of lip service to Indigenous issues, but are unwilling to actually appear before the leadership of First Nations in B.C. If they can't spend 10 minutes addressing these issues during the election, what kind of attention will they pay to reconciliation once they are elected?" said Teegee in a statement.

Speaking Tuesday morning on CBC's The Early Edition, Teegee said each federal leader was a "maybe" up until just before the AGM began — and then they were "a flat out no" without any real explanation why.

This, said the chief, stands in the way of conversations between federal and First Nations leaders about serious issues B.C. Indigenous people are contending with, including missing and murdered Indigenous women, traumatic residential school findings, an opioid crisis, homelessness and devastating wildfire seasons.

WATCH | Federal leaders speak about boil-water advisories in First Nations communities:

Singh, Trudeau, O'Toole on boil-water advisories

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During the official French-language leaders' debate, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole said promises from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to deliver clean drinking water to some Indigenous communities were broken. Trudeau said the work will be completed to eliminate boil-water advisories. 1:51

Teegee said meeting delegates would have liked to hear how the three parties plan to make concrete changes in terms of their relationships with Indigenous people, including when and how they plan to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

He also noted that in 2015, the Liberal government said "the most important relationship was with Indigenous Peoples" — but ongoing water issues in First Nations communities and a lack of timeline on the TRC recommendations indicate otherwise.

"We are not a priority anymore," said Teegee.

The BCAFN says all leaders were given plenty of notice and flexibility in scheduling to make it easy for them to address delegates. A number of Indigenous candidates who are running in the federal election will be speaking to the group.

Click the links to read the Liberal, Conservative and NDP federal election promises regarding reconciliation and Indigenous Peoples. 

Terry Teegee speaks with Stephen Quinn about the level of frustration Indigenous people feel about this federal election that seems to have reduced them to a footnote. 8:45

With files from The Early Edition

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