Trudeau Liberals press case for Indigenous rights legislation with divided chiefs

The Liberal government took its case directly to First Nations chiefs Tuesday that Ottawa's planned Indigenous rights legislation poses no threat, but instead breaks with decades of federal policies that sought to extinguish rights in exchange for agreements.

Resolution on issue pushed to 2nd day of AFN special chiefs assembly

The Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly opened with a grand entry on Tuesday. (CBC)

The Liberal government took its case directly to First Nations chiefs that Ottawa's planned Indigenous rights legislation poses no threat, but instead breaks with decades of federal policies that sought to extinguish rights in exchange for agreements.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Joe Wild, senior assistant deputy minister for treaties and Aboriginal government, outlined the government's case on Tuesday to those gathered for a two-day Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que.

They sought to convince chiefs there was no sleight of hand behind the proposed Indigenous rights recognition framework legislation which they want passed before next year's federal election.

"The framework has not yet been written, we are committed to co-developing this framework," said Bennett in her speech.

"We are working hard to prove we are not on a White Paper path. This is the opposite of assimilation."

The White Paper, proposed in 1969 by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, recommended abolishing any legal distinct status for Indigenous peoples.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to speak to the chiefs on Wednesday to bolster his government's pitch.

The proposed legislation has met with mixed reactions from First Nation leaders, with some saying it was a historic opportunity, others saying the process is flawed and some saying it should be rejected outright.

Debate heated

A resolution on the issue was pushed to Wednesday after a torrent of proposed amendments.

The debate also played out as the Assembly of First Nations enters its election period for national chief with a vote scheduled in Vancouver in July.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is seeking reelection, urged chiefs to support the proposed legislation. (CBC)

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is seeking reelection, urged chiefs to work toward supporting the proposed legislation before the next federal election.

A potential candidate for national chief, Russ Diabo, a policy analyst from Kahnawake, Que., has staked out a position against the legislation.

Another potential candidate, Miles Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation in B.C., said he has concerns the process is not based on a nation-to-nation relationship.

Opposition to the legislation is also brewing among the grassroots in much the same way the Idle No More movement sprang from resistance to omnibus legislation passed by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Trudeau announced his government's plans to table the Indigenous rights recognition framework in a speech to the House of Commons on Valentine's Day.

Tight timeline

The ambitious legislation aims to accomplish what successive constitutional conferences, under former prime ministers Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, failed to do — define the place of First Nations within the constitutional division of powers.

It also aims to eventually do away with the Indian Act.

Successive Supreme Court decisions have created an outline of what Constitution section 35 rights mean. The impact has been most apparent with resource development projects where a failure to properly consult Indigenous Peoples can now stop development. 

However, government policies and laws have lagged behind the court decisions leading to constant legal battles between First Nations and Ottawa, the provinces and territories.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett speaks during the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Bennett said in her speech that, if this legislation passes, it will end the litigious nature of the relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous Peoples.

"We have laws in our federal government, you have your laws," said Bennett.

"We need to ensure that the laws of Canada confirm with your section 35 rights."

Many First Nations chiefs at the meeting said they found the process and timeframe problematic.

Ottawa wants to have this legislation passed before the next federal election and Bennett has been crisscrossing the country meeting with First Nations, gathering their input.

Limited-time opportunity?

Bellegarde told chiefs in his opening speech that the opportunity presented by the Liberal government may evaporate after the next federal election.   

"If you slow down, you run the risk of it not making the timeframe," said Bellegarde.

"You don't know what's going to happen."

Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said the process needs more time. (CBC)

Bobby Cameron, who is Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief and AFN regional chief for Saskatchewan, said Bennett needs to spend days, not hours, meeting with First Nations. He believes the process needs more time.

"We need to do our part at the grassroots level to get their viewpoints," said Cameron.

"I heard that about the election, but so what? Our First Nations will dictate or tell us if they need more time and if it's after the election, then so be it."

Mistrust behind opposition

Cheryl Casimer, a proxy for St. Mary's Band, in B.C., said mistrust and fear is driving opposition to the legislation.

"Everything about it is positive. Never have we in our collective history had a government that was prepared to put in place legislation that would recognize our rights as Indigenous Peoples in this country," she said.

Oneida Nation of the Thames Chief Randall Phillips said he has reason to be suspicious after 30 years of experience in First Nations politics.

"I am one of the chiefs that will remain skeptical of anything that comes out of a government's mouth," said Phillips, whose community sits in Ontario.

"I've heard nothing but platitudes."

Kahnawake Elder Kahentinetha Horn read out a cease and desist order against the legislation. (CBC)

The grassroots opposition to the legislation burst onto the assembly floor on Tuesday morning after Bennett's speech when Kahnawake Elder Kahentinetha Horn read out a cease and desist order aimed at the AFN and Bennett over the legislation.

Horn said in an interview that the proposed legislation is "dangerous" and the AFN along with band council chiefs have no authority to discuss rights.

"Canada doesn't have land because it's all ours," said Horn, who has been involved in Indigenous rights activism since the 1960s.

"It's the sudden rush and push of secret meetings and hiding something from us…. We are the people of Turtle Island. They are Canadian government employees, they work for committees called band councils."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him