New Brunswick

Indigenous leadership needed to protect environment, Elizabeth May tells AFN assembly

First Nations leaders gathered in Fredericton for the Assembly of First Nations general assembly are hearing from representatives of four political parties, discussing key issues leading into the October federal election.

National chief plans to influence party platforms, with climate change a key issue, ahead of October vote

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May commended the chiefs for declaring a climate emergency in her remarks at the AFN's 40th annual general assembly in Fredericton. (CBC)

Key 2019 federal election issues — with an emphasis on climate change — were front and centre during the second day of the 40th annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on Wednesday in Fredericton.

First Nations leaders from across Canada are heard from representatives of four political parties.

In her morning address to the assembly, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she was grateful the Assembly of First Nations has passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency. 

She said Canada needs to take the climate emergency seriously, something that requires Indigenous leadership, traditional knowledge and a knowledge of ecosystems.

"The people least to blame for this climate emergency are the ones living closest to the front lines of extreme weather," she said.

She applauded the leadership of Indigenous people across Canada, and encouraged them to keep fighting against greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels. 

"I want to fight for the life of Mother Earth." 

'Global climate emergency'

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde made it clear Tuesday he plans to influence party platforms and advocate on issues such as restorative justice, life beyond the Indian Act and fiscal Crown-Indigenous relations.

But Bellegarde told reporters the No. 1 issue is climate change. And that sentiment was shared by the chiefs, who declared a "global climate emergency" in a resolution passed Tuesday. 

The resolution calls for "urgent and transformative" action from federal and provincial governments to keep global warming below 1.5 C and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

"These issues are not just First Nations issues, these are Canada's issues," Bellegarde said. 

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde says he will lobby to ensure political parties account for Indigenous issues in their election platforms. (CBC)

Conservative MP Cathy McLeod and NDP MP Guy Caron also addressed the assembly on Wednesday morning.

Both McLeod and Caron were criticized for the absence of the leaders of their parties, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh, respectively.

Indigenous leaders also accused Scheer's climate change plan of not being strong enough. They accused him of not reading or being "genuine" in regards to the "calls to justice" in the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

"It was very clear to me he did not read them … I think that he needs to come out and talk about it," one leader said. 

Meanwhile, Caron said the NDP intended to lift all boil-water notices by 2021, which would mean investing in safe water infrastructure. Similar to May, Caron said he too was happy to hear the resolution declaring a climate change emergency was being adopted.

"We deeply believe that the federal government should not get to choose which Indigenous rights are upheld and which are not," he said. 

Each partly leader also promised to improve its relationship with First Nations people.

"We can't expect the road will always be easy … what is important is we always work together to find common cause," said McLeod.

'A huge chasm in trust'

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan touted major spending the Liberal government announced in its 2019 budget during his address Wednesday afternoon: $4.5 billion will be injected into Indigenous services over the next five years.

O'Regan spoke of investments in housing, infrastructure and First Nations-led education systems. 

"This is reconciliation in action," he told delegates.

But the minister said he's making "no excuses" for the water crisis in Attawapiskat, describing it as "a huge chasm in trust."

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan vowed to work toward a long-term solution to the water crisis in Attawapiskat during his address to the AFN assembly on Wednesday. (CBC)

The Cree First Nation as well as the Eabametoong First Nation — both located in northern Ontario — recently declared states of emergency over their water quality. That comes as Ottawa is working to eliminate all existing 57 boil-water advisories on reserves.

"Everyone should feel that the water they get from their tap is clean and safe," said O'Regan, who visited the remote community this week and pledged to replace the water treatment plant.

The Liberals were also criticized for not sending their leader to the assembly.

MMIWG report

The leaders also discussed the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The report, which was released in June,  includes many recommendations to government, the police and the larger Canadian public to help address endemic levels of violence directed at Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people.

Party leaders vowed to look at each of the  231 "calls for justice"and how they would move forward.

A discussion and resolution session is scheduled in the afternoon for talks on nation building, moving beyond the Indian Act and treaties.

The right to vote

Bellegarde highlighted the importance of voting in October's federal election, which will address issues like climate change and the latest calls to justice.

He said those issues should be "front and centre" on all party platforms. 

"They're really Canada's priorities and issues," he said. "You're going to build a better country."

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

Each political representative has been offered a gift for attending the assembly.

"We don't tell people who to vote for, but look at their platforms and which has the most progressive one," said Bellegarde.

With files from Kayla Hounsell