Premiers reconsidering future joint meetings with Indigenous leaders

Wednesday's Council of the Federation talks may be the last time premiers invite Indigenous leaders to their annual summer gathering, after the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council declined their invitations for the second year in a row.

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant calls absence a 'lost opportunity' as 3 leaders decline for 2nd time

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball speak to actors portraying Acadian villagers as they arrive at Pays de la Sagouine in Bouctouche, N.B., for the first day of the Council of Federation's summer meeting Wednesday. (Janyce McGregor/CBC )

Wednesday's Council of the Federation talks may be the last time premiers invite Indigenous leaders to their annual summer gathering, after the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council declined their invitation for the second year in a row.

"We changed the format a little bit this year in case this happened again," New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant told reporters before greeting his colleagues as they arrived for their first of two scenic locations for this week's talks: Pays de la Sagouine, a reconstructed Acadian village in Bouctouche, N.B.

"It's a lost opportunity nonetheless," he said.

Robert Bertrand, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), and Francyne Joe, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, did accept their invitations to discuss economic partnerships and Indigenous children in care.

"It's very important for us to be part of this whole collaborative relationship, because that's part of true reconciliation," Joe told reporters. The others made their choice, she said, but for her group today's issues were "far too important not to be here." She said she hoped the others would return.

Indigenous groups aren't there to compete with each other, Bertrand said. They're all working to improve lives.

"How many times can you sit in the same room with all of the provincial premiers of Canada?" Bertrand said of today's opportunity. 

Speakers from the local St. Mary's First Nation and a successful local Indigenous seafood company also shared their stories, as well as researchers and academics who focus on Indigenous poverty.

Gallant said the speakers were "fantastic" and he felt the day worked quite well.

But when pressed at the closing news conference to identify some kind of a tangible outcome from the discussion, Gallant, Joe and Bertrand merely reiterated how important it was to build relationships.

3 premiers also absent

Premier after premier and official after official used the word "unfortunate" to describe the absence of the three national leaders who represent Indigenous treaty rights holders in Canada. 

Gallant characterized their concerns as "issues with the setup of the meetings."

"I think there are a lot of people across the country that if they could have a few hours with all the premiers of the country they would want to take that opportunity," he said. "It's fine if they don't think it's perfect.... There'd be a way that they could still show up today and still in parallel make the suggestions and raise the preoccupations that they have."

CBC reported last week that the three leaders see themselves as a third level of government in Canada, along with the federal and provincial and territorial governments. They objected to being lumped in with organizations that represent people who do not have the same rights recognized under the Constitution.

Issues also emerged around the setting of the agenda for the meeting, with some Indigenous leaders feeling they didn't have a strong enough role in deciding what would be discussed.

Bertrand told CBC News a week ago that he was looking forward to having a chance to meet new premiers in person.

But two of the newer members of the Council of the Federation — Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C. Premier John Horgan — decided not to attend the first day of the meeting that's recently been focused on Indigenous issues. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil also did not arrive with the other premiers Wednesday.

The CAP national chief also expressed frustration last week that the federal government has started to exclude his organization from its direct talks with First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders.

Issues like Indigenous child welfare are a big part of his organization's work with urban Indigenous populations, he said, and he doesn't understand why he was excluded from an emergency meeting on the topic hosted by federal minister Jane Philpott last winter.

'Find a better way'

P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said even with the absences, he found the meeting useful because they had "serious business to do."

"It's a good opportunity to learn what other people are doing, and so I'm all ears," he said.

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod, the longest-serving premier at the meeting, said that while he'd prefer that all organizations came, the meeting's format needs to be reconsidered if they refuse.

The summer gathering had been a good venue for past discussions, "especially with this period of reconciliation." But "we don't necessarily feel that the three national organizations represent our people" in the territories, he said.

"There's a lot of different options," he said. "I'll be suggesting that we take another look at it and find a better way."

Gallant acknowledged the premiers would have a conversation this week about how to proceed, and it will be up to the next host province, Saskatchewan, to decide what to do next year.

Confirmations of exactly who would attend this meeting were difficult to come by. After shaking hands with those who did come, Gallant got on the premiers' shared bus and appeared to be joking about making sure that he didn't miss anyone.

The first day of the premiers talks were held in the part of New Brunswick Gallant represents as a politician.

The Council of the Federation meeting continues Thursday and Friday on the other side of the province, in Saint Andrews.

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