Premiers, chiefs, all Canadians divided over Trans Mountain, says AFN Chief Bellegarde

Resolving divisive issues like the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline would be made easier if Indigenous people had a seat at the table, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday.

National groups representing Inuit, Métis did not attend annual meeting

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde is seen during a media availability during the Premiers and Indigenous Leaders meeting in Big River First Nation, Sask., Tuesday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Resolving divisive issues like the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline would be made easier if Indigenous people had a seat at the table, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday. 

"Canadians are divided, premiers are divided, chiefs are divided," he said. "I would encourage dialogue, discussion, debate and let the rights and title holders determine that — the best next steps."

Speaking to reporters in Big River First Nation, Saskatchewan, after meeting with nine of Canada's 13 premiers, Bellegarde said there are no simple solutions that will satisfy all sides of the Trans Mountain debate, but excluding Indigenous leadership will only lead to bad policy.

"When you involve First Nations people, whether you are talking about the duty to consult and accommodate, whether you're talking about free prior informed consent, whether you're talking about balancing the environment and the economy — when you have First Nations people at those tables, you find that good balance," he said. 

The Liberal government approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline for the second time last month. Cabinet approved the pipeline two years ago but that decision was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal last summer, with judges citing inadequate Indigenous consultations and an incomplete environmental review process.

After approving the pipeline again, the federal government said it will soon begin the process of meeting with Indigenous groups who are interested in buying the project and it's open to selling as much as 100 per cent of its stake to First Nations, Métis and Inuit investors.

This year's meeting marks the first time since 2016 that Bellegarde has accepted the Council of the Federation's invitation to meet with premiers. This year's meeting touched on economic development and services for Indigenous children and families.

Bellegarde's attendance at the meeting with premiers ended a boycott that the AFN launched in 2017. 

In July 2017, leaders of the AFN, the Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami collectively chose to reject meeting invitations from the council, the organization that represents Canada's 13 provincial and territorial premiers.

The Indigenous groups said they would rejoin the meetings if they were invited to the table for the entire duration of the talks. Representatives of national Indigenous organizations are only invited to the annual premiers meetings to discuss Indigenous issues.

AFN's change of heart

Explaining his change of heart, Bellegarde cited the recent passage of C-92, a new law allowing Indigenous groups to secure control of child and family services in their communities. The legislation was developed with input from First Nations.

He said that having the premiers meet with Indigenous leaders on-reserve was the first step in the AFN's effort to have Indigenous leaders treated as equals at future premiers' meetings.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe addresses a meeting of Premiers and Indigenous Leaders in Big River First Nation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"We always keep trying to get at decision-making tables," Bellgarde said. "When you have federal, provincial, territorial government tables, you need Indigenous peoples' voices at all those decision-making tables. So I am going to keep pushing for that and encouraging that."

Bellgarde would not commit to attending a meeting with the premiers next year, saying that it depends where the meeting is held. 

"It would look not very well for the AFN chief not to be out at Big River. We'll see where it's hosted next year."

Maintaining the boycott

Chief Bruce Morin of Big River First Nation co-hosted the half-day of talks with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who is also is hosting his provincial and territorial counterparts in Saskatoon for the annual Council of the Federation summer meeting Wednesday and Thursday.

The Métis National Council, which also declined an invitation to last month's western premiers' conference in Edmonton, is continuing the boycott.

In a letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, which also was sent to the other provincial and territorial leaders, MNC President Clément Chartier said the group "would not be accepting meeting invitations from the Council of the Federation until such time that it limits its invitations to the three National Representatives of Indigenous Nations and Peoples" — the MNC, the AFN and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

"Premier Moe is fully aware of this position," wrote Chartier.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed also skipped Tuesday's meeting — but an organization representative blamed that on a "scheduling" issue.

Chief Robert Bertrand of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents Indigenous people living off-reserve, attended the meeting, as did Native Women's Association of Canada interim president Gail Paul.

CAP and NWAC were the only national Indigenous groups to accept invitations to meet with the premiers during last year's retreat. That meeting in Bouctouche, New Brunswick coincided with Bellegarde's re-election campaign as national chief, as well as the general assembly of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska.

A First Nations dancer performs for the Premiers and Indigenous in Big River, First Nation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, a Saskatchewan-based First Nations organization, also attended the meeting, saying that it's important to keep lines of communication open with the provinces.

"Much the way our Premier Scott Moe butts heads with (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau, there's times where we at the FSIN butt heads with our provincial government," he said. "But that shouldn't stop the governments and FSIN and chiefs and councils from creating and forming these partnerships, to at least improve some of the quality of life for our First Nations people."

Some premiers not attending

Four of Canada's 13 premiers skipped Tuesday's meeting, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King.

Ford was represented by his Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford. Ford's office said the premier planned to meet with Indigenous leaders informally at a reception later in the day.

Ball and McNeil could not attend due to scheduling and travel complications.

With files from David Cochrane