Native Council of P.E.I. head says province's lack of consultation 'hurting my community'
P.E.I.’s 2 First Nations counter that the council does not represent Mi’kmaq people
The Native Council of P.E.I. is once again taking aim at the provincial government, claiming it is discriminating against hundreds of Indigenous Islanders living off-reserve by not consulting with the council on decisions that could affect Indigenous rights.
The council made the assertions in a written news release Wednesday.
As she did back in 2017, council Chief Lisa Cooper has sent a letter to the province, asking at the end of March this year for the premier and cabinet to meet with the Native Council to establish a collaborative process and reconciliatory framework. Cooper said the council has heard nothing yet from the province.
"They don't see us as being legitimate representatives for the off-reserve Indigenous peoples on P.E.I., which in fact we are," she said via an online interview. "That record's playing too long and the effect is that it's hurting my community."
Cooper said the council represents more than 1,000 off-reserve Indigenous members from Mi'kmaq, Inuit and other nations, and that the province is ignoring its duty to consider their interests.
CBC News sought a response from the province on Wednesday to the council's claims, but had not received a reply two days later.
You're not reaching the most vulnerable sector ... and that's the off-reserve. We are now the most impoverished, even more impoverished than our cousins on reserve, because of this denial that we exist.- Lisa Cooper
Cooper said there have been instances in the past year where Indigenous people living on P.E.I. have fallen through the province's social safety net, and believes if the council was recognized and consulted, these situations could have had better outcomes.
"You're not reaching the most vulnerable sector ... and that's the off-reserve," Cooper said.
"We are now the most impoverished, even more impoverished than our cousins on reserve, because of this denial that we exist, and pretending that we don't have rights and [are] not needed at the table and that these other groups are looking after us — that's not the case."
Those "other groups" Cooper is referring to are the two Mi'kmaw First Nations on P.E.I., Lennox Island and Abegweit.
Council 'misrepresenting' itself, bands say
The Epekwitk Assembly of Councils, which administers both the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. and the Mi'kmaw rights group L'nuey, maintains it represents off-reserve and non-status Mi'kmaw people, and considers the Native Council an advocacy group rather than a legitimate governing body.
"The Native Council of P.E.I. ... misrepresent themselves as representatives of the Indigenous people of Epekwitk," a statement to CBC News from the assembly said in part.
While the Native Council is an Indigenous organization, it is not a Mi'kmaq organization- Epekwitk Assembly
"While the Native Council is an Indigenous organization, it is not a Mi'kmaq organization. An individual does not become a beneficiary of Mi'kmaq Aboriginal and treaty rights by virtue of membership with the Native Council," the statement continued.
"Further, an individual is not entitled to be a beneficiary of constitutionally entrenched rights in this province by being 'Indigenous'; such rights are derived by virtue of being Mi'kmaq."
The assembly points to agreements signed by the P.E.I. government, the federal government, and both band chiefs in 2012 and 2019 which name those First Nations as the only groups required to be involved in consultations.
'Not a game'
Cooper said one example of being left out of decision-making makes her especially unhappy: the lack of representation on what's called the P.E.I. Bridge model, which brings service providers together to offer programs and support to Islanders at very high risk of immediate harm such as homelessness and addiction.
The Mi'kmaq Confederacy has a representative on that group, and said in the statement that it ensures the needs of all Indigenous people are supported.
"This is not a game of political wrangling and favourites," she said. "That group is about meeting the needs of the people that are most vulnerable. We have a membership with people that are the most vulnerable ... we should be at that group."
Cooper points out that the council is recognized by the United Nations. In fact, she is scheduled to speak virtually at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body established in 2000 that deals with Indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.
She said she plans to highlight many examples of the lack of respect and leadership for the off-reserve Indigenous peoples by the P.E.I. government. Especially, she said, the government has failed to allow Indigenous people on P.E.I. to choose to be represented by the Native Council rather than the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.
She said under articles 18 and 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all Indigenous people have the right to choose which organization it wants to represent them, or even start their own.
The federal government also recognizes the Native Council, Cooper said: It gives the group core funding and program funding, including more than half a million dollars so far to help its members through the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're recognized by the UN and by the federal government but we're not recognized by the province? There's something wrong there," Cooper said. "That should send a strong message to this province."
Cooper said the Native Council is considering suing the province, claiming discrimination under section 15 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality rights.
"I'm not going to stop," she said. "I'm hoping that this province doesn't force our hand, I'm really hoping it doesn't, because I know they're going to lose."