Scheer should break with Harper's approach to Indigenous peoples, says AFN national chief

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer should signal he won't copy former prime minister Stephen Harper's approach to the relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous Canadians, says Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

Perry Bellegarde lays out election priorities on climate change, justice and rights

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde releases 'Honouring Promises: 2019 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada' during a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer should signal he won't copy former prime minister Stephen Harper's approach to the relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous Peoples, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said today.

"If he wants to gain a lot of support from First Nations people, that would be a good step to do that," Bellegarde told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa on Monday.

Bellegarde held the news conference to lay out his organization's priorities for the upcoming federal election, which focus on climate change, justice and Indigenous rights.

The Harper years saw turmoil between Canada and Indigenous people culminating in the Idle No More movement, which was triggered by federal legislation that many saw as a threat to Indigenous rights. Idle No More inspired flash mob round dances, blockades and protests across the country; the movement hit its peak between December 2012 and January 2013.

Scheer's planned approach to the relationship remains unclear, aside from indications that a Conservative government would again enforce the Harper-era First Nations Transparency Act and require that band governments post their financial information online.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says Conservative leader Andrew Scheer needs to signal he won't copy former prime minister Stephen Harper's approach to Indigenous issues. In this 2011 photo, Scheer jokingly tries to fight with Harper and then-NDP leader Jack Layton as they escort him to the Speaker's chair. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Scheer was booed when he appeared in December during the AFN's special chiefs assembly in Ottawa.

Bellegarde, meanwhile, said he has a good relationship with Scheer; he called the Conservative leader a "Saskatchewan boy" and pointed out that he hails from the national chief's home region, which covers the Conservative leader's riding of Regina-Qu'Appelle and 12 reserves.

Bellegarde said that, if the Conservatives win the fall election, he wants to work with Scheer and help his government build on what he described as progress made over the last four years.

"Some of their policies aren't as progressive as they can be," said Bellegarde. "It's my job to help him get to where he should be. It's my job to help influence all policy and legislation that they have within the Conservative Party of Canada."

Bellegarde said he won't be endorsing any party in the coming federal election campaign.

"We are all treaty people and we have a treaty relationship with the Crown," said Bellegarde.

"I don't have a treaty with the Conservatives, or the Liberals, or the NDP or the Greens ... and we have to see that being honoured and implemented according to the spirit and intent."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the Assembly of First Nations meeting in December 2018.

'Progress doesn't mean parity'

Bellegarde said there has been progress over the last four years under the Liberal government. He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the first sitting prime minister to attend and speak at a gathering of the AFN and Liberal ministers regularly attend gatherings held by the organization, which represents 634 First Nations across the country.

He said the Trudeau Liberals have committed over $21 billion in new investments to Indigenous files over seven fiscal years.

"That is unprecedented," said Bellegarde. 

The Liberal government also reduced the number of First Nations facing long-term boil water advisories, forgave $1.4 billion in loans incurred by Indigenous groups while negotiating modern treaties, and passed laws on Indigenous languages and child welfare.

"Is the gap closed yet? The answer is no," said Bellegarde.

Bellegarde said that the next federal government should table a bill on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

UNDRIP sets out minimum standards on how nation-states should interact with Indigenous Peoples.

"Canada must lead in upholding the United Nations declaration," said Bellegarde.

"This is about upholding our rights, rights that are too often recognized and not respected."

Bellegarde said he wants to see a new bill that is as strong or stronger than Bill C-262, the private member's bill introduced by NDP MP Romeo Saganash that died in the Senate. C-262 would have compelled the Canadian government to align its laws with UNDRIP.

Bellegarde said the next federal government should commit to fighting climate change, involve First Nations in the struggle and ensure they benefit from the revenue generated by the carbon tax (a policy the federal government presented as revenue-neutral) as part of a new fiscal relationship.

"First Nations must be first responders in this global emergency," he said. "It's time for action, action that incorporates Indigenous knowledge."

Bellegarde called on the next federal government to initiate sweeping justice reform to address the disproportionate number of Indigenous people behind bars and acknowledge that First Nations laws are on par with common law and civil law. He said First Nations policing also should be designated an essential service.

He said the next government should overhaul modern-treaty and self government policies (which would have been replaced under the promised but failed framework for recognition of Indigenous rights) and include First Nations in the development of bills that affect their rights, he said.

"The time to act is now," he said.

Greens commit to UNDRIP

The Green Party said in a statement it would respect Indigenous sovereignty and all rights "that their title to land entails including the right to stewardship," if it should form government. 

"Greens are committed to UNDRIP, including provisions for free, prior and informed consent on all matters impacting Indigenous peoples. Any way forward will be based on a nation to nation basis," said Lorraine Rekmans, the party's Indigenous affairs critic and candidate for Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Canada's Indigenous peoples need a government they can count on and that the NDP will fill that role. 

"After four years of this Liberal government, the challenges First Nations face remain unresolved. New Democrats are ready to deliver and won't repeat the mistakes of the past," Singh said in a statement. 


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

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