New Brunswick

First Nations chiefs declare climate emergency on Day 1 of AFN annual assembly

Environmental issues such as climate change and water protection took priority during the first round of talks on the opening day of the 40th annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations in Fredericton on Tuesday.

Relationship with Ottawa improving, minister says

National chief Perry Bellegarde urged First Nations leaders to make climate change the number one topic in October's federal election, as the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations got underway on Tuesday in Fredericton. (CBC)

First Nations leaders from across Canada passed a resolution declaring a "global climate emergency" on Tuesday, as environmental concerns took priority on the opening day of the 40th annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Fredericton on Tuesday.

The chiefs did not mince words in resolving to develop a First Nations-led climate strategy; calling on federal and provincial governments for "urgent and transformative" action to keep global warming below 1.5 C and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

"The crisis stage was 20 years ago," Kluane Adamek, AFN regional chief for Yukon, told the crowd. 

The United Nations projects global temperatures are on track to rise by more than 3 C this century, but Adamaek, alluding to a recent study, said the rate of warming will be three times as fast in Northern Canada.

"We cannot continue to move forward without including climate considerations in every single thing that we do," Adamek said.

It was one in a series of environmental resolutions passed or tabled Tuesday, as the three-day gathering got underway; a chance for leaders to discuss Indigenous issues and the challenges facing Canada and its relationship with First Nations.

'Mother Earth is saying something'

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde encouraged the more than 1,000 delegates to make climate change the number one topic of October's federal election.

"Our elders said, 'climate destruction,'" he said in his opening remarks. 

"We've seen the big winds, the floods, we see the fires, we see all the natural things that are turning around. And our elders predicted that. Mother Earth is saying something. She's saying, 'Stop it.'"

The annual assembly was marked by a flag-raising ceremony at city hall on Monday. The flag for the traditional Wolastoqey territory was raised. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Kevin Hart, the regional chief for Manitoba, stressed the urgent need for improved emergency management of natural disasters spurred by climate change. 

He said flooding and forest fires are the most damaging disasters First Nations face, noting many communities are remote and in forested areas. His own home was lost to a wildfire in June, he said. 

"Lives are at stake here," he told the crowd. 

Water protection

The chiefs also re-emphasized the fight for the protection and recognition of Indigenous water rights, and passed a resolution that outlined the next steps in the attempt to replace 2013's much-criticized Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. 

The resolution states the act granted sweeping powers to the Crown and failed to improve water quality on reserves.

Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald said new legislation, drafted in tandem with First Nations, should ensure access to water is comparable to that of off-reserve municipalities, that water systems are developed and implemented by First Nations, and those nations have full control over infrastructure and investment decisions.

An exchange of water ceremony took place to help open the general assembly on Tuesday. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Archibald also criticized the Trudeau government for slow movement on improving water quality on reserves. 

The Liberals earmarked $739 million over six years in this year's budget to eliminate the need for drinking-water advisories. Today, Archibald said, 58 reserves are under boil orders and two First Nations— Attawapiskat and Eabametoong —recently declared states of emergency over their water quality

"The federal government has to make larger investments and immediate funding to improve the water and wastewater systems for our communities," she said.

Minister's remarks

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear that Indigenous rights "are not optional." 

Bennett said the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous people is now based on "recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership."

"It is only through working together that we can continue the journey and support the reconstitution of your nations and your chosen path to self-determination," Bennett said.

That journey involves overhauling federal comprehensive land claims and inherent rights policies, she said.

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, said the relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous people is now based on 'recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.' (Logan Perley/CBC)

Bennett highlighted some recent successes taken toward self-governance and a positive relationship, such the 10-year, $600-million renewal agreement with the Mi'kmaq education authority in Nova Scotia. The program has sent increased on-reserve graduation rate from 30 per cent to 90 per cent in the past 20 years.

She spoke of a recent land, cash and self-government agreement that would return parts of British Columbia's West Coast Trail and Pacific Rim National Park to two Vancouver Island First Nations. Parks Canada and the First Nations agreed to co-manage and preserve the parkland. 

She also mentioned the memorandum of understanding reached between Ottawa and Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. The deal at will launch discussions about the Mi'kmaq claim of Aboriginal title to a third of New Brunswick.

First Nation leaders from across Canada are in Fredericton for the AFN annual general assembly. Here are some sights and sounds of the event. 0:55

Disconnect from reality

Delegates that rose to provide comments and questions, however, disputed the minister's remarks. The roughly dozen individuals that spoke described a disconnect between Bennett's words and their reality.

Words like "reconciliation" have no meaning if Ottawa isn't practising what it preaches, they said.

"You might say good words, but when it comes down to the bureaucrats, we're not seeing it," Chief Elaine Johnston of Serpent River First Nation in Ontario told Bennett.

Progress toward self-determination is hampered by federal negotiators and Department of Justice officials who aren't embracing pledges of respect and rights recognition made by Bennett's department, they said.

First Nations must also navigate slow-moving programs, like the Addition to Reserve process — something Bennett said the government is trying to streamline.

An early-morning pipe ceremony on St. Mary's First Nation opened the general assembly, followed by an exchange of water ceremony, where six participants travelled by canoe along the St. John River to give thanks to the body of water. About 60 people, including chiefs and members of the public, were in attendance.

That was followed by the opening ceremonies and an official welcome at the Fredericton Convention Centre, home to most of the proceedings, before the plenary session began.

The Assembly of First Nations represents 634 First Nations across Canada. There are 10 regional chiefs, each with a seat on the AFN's executive committee.

With files from Catherine Harrop