AFN chiefs gather at critical juncture

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AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at this year's National Assembly

AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at the 2015 General Assembly in Montreal.

“Closing the Gap: Building Nations, Asserting Sovereignty” was the theme of this year’s annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which focused on how to transform the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration of Human Rights into meaningful change for Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde said it is time for Canada to seize an opportunity offered by the TRC final report to improve the relationship with all First Nations.

“The legacy of the residential schools does not end with the suffering and the damage done throughout more than 100 years of abuse,” Bellegarde declared. “Because with that promise of reconciliation comes an opportunity to rebuild this country, in a manner that our ancestors envisioned. Reconciliation means honouring those original promises and restoring that original relationship to one based on respect and recognition of our title and rights. Governments must respect our right to determine what happens in our traditional territories.”

The 36th annual event took place in Montreal July 7-9. Delegates heard from a variety of community chiefs, federal political leaders and guest speakers. Among the hot discussion topics in break-out sessions were mobilizing the Native vote in October’s federal election, missing and murdered Indigenous women and the road to reconciliation for First Nations communities and individuals.

A presentation by Truth and Reconciliation commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson underlined their view that the TRC’s 94 recommendations should be seen as calls to action. Dr. Wilson also noted the importance of sustained public education of the realities and legacy of the residential school system in Canada.

Chief Littlechild outlined some of the recommendations, including parenting programs focused on child welfare, culturally based early childhood education, concerted efforts to reclaim Indigenous identity (both individual names and traditional territories) and the importance of healthcare rights and cultural training for healthcare providers. Littlechild also mentioned the TRC’s calls to implement a National Day of Reconciliation, build residential school monuments, reduce the number of Indigenous youth in custody, create support programs for inmates, recognize and support Indigenous athletes and sports programs and continue to develop Indigenous justice systems.

“In conclusion,” said Littlechild, “reconciliation will require the leadership and sustained efforts of the Assembly of First Nations and the continuous efforts of Indigenous and public leaders working together.”

Given the Harper government’s complete indifference to the TRC report and its recommendations, a focus on mobilizing traditionally reluctant First Nations voters to help elect a friendlier government was a logical conclusion.

“As Canadians consider their future in this election year, it is essential that we capture their imagination and we share with them what strong and healthy First Nations people will mean for this country,” Bellegarde said. “We will make progress when more Canadians realize that First Nations need to be lifted out of poverty, empowered to deliver our own education, are living in healthy homes with clean water and the same basic healthcare that all Canadians enjoy.”

Indeed, one session focussed on how to improve the fiscal relationship with the federal government and create revenue sharing to ensure that the same level of services enjoyed by all Canadians are finally delivered to Aboriginal communities. In particular, the panel stressed the need to remove the Conservative government’s 2% cap on federal funding increases for essential services.

Following Bellegarde’s speech, the AFN general assembly continued with a panel on mobilizing the Native vote. Panelists outlined voting requirements, how to secure proper identification and the opportunity First Nations have to exercise their influence in the election. Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau each took to the stage to share their visions of federal relations with First Nations communities.

Mulcair told the audience that the NDP is committed to a new era based on a nation-to-nation relationship. “A new era starts with listening and an understanding that ‘meaningful consultation and accommodation’ isn’t just a catch phrase,” he said.

Mulcair said a NDP government would swiftly address education underfunding, respect treaty rights and restore environmental protection. He also assured delegates that a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women would be established within 60 days of taking office, while consulting with First Nations on the recommendations of the TRC. The NDP leader also said his government would repeal Bill C-51 in its entirety.

Trudeau, like Mulcair, was quick to attack Stephen Harper and the Conservative government’s multiple failures on First Nations issues. “We need to recognize that ours was a nation forged without the meaningful participation of our Aboriginal peoples,” Trudeau observed. “Harper’s legacy includes government-led legislation that demonstrates a striking and shocking lack of understanding of what is needed to move beyond the Indian Act and the paternalistic ‘Ottawa knows best’ approach to governance.”

While Trudeau said the Liberals support certain “security” elements of Bill C-51, he was quick to note that parts of the bill must be repealed, mentioning that Indigenous peoples fighting for their rights and freedoms should never be branded as terrorists. He too, promised to work with Aboriginal peoples across the country to implement the recommendations of the TRC.

Day two of the AFN assembly kicked off with a discussion on the role Indigenous communities play in protecting the environment and opportunities for sustainable energy development on First Nation territories.

Chris Henderson, author of Aboriginal Power and a clean energy advisor for over a dozen Indigenous communities, spoke about the future of renewable energy and 60 projects already underway across Canada. “If they are invested in,” Henderson declared, “hydroelectricity, wind, geothermal, solar and biomass energy can be bigger than any other industry and help heal communities.”

Henderson is the program designer for the 20/20 Catalysts Program, which pairs young Métis, Inuit and First Nations with mentors to develop the skills they need to lead clean energy projects in their communities.

A strategy session on missing and murdered Indigenous women heard heart-wrenching stories from women who have lost sisters, daughters and friends. Key areas of focus remain prevention and awareness, community safety, policing and justice. The AFN is committed to continue to press for a national inquiry and is also pushing for a national prevention and awareness campaign to change attitudes that devalue Indigenous women and girls.

A passionate speech from former Prime Minister Paul Martin addressed recent successes in First Nations education. He noted the successful literacy and entrepreneurship initiatives implemented in almost 50 Aboriginal schools over the last couple years. Martin said that when there is adequate funding, a culturally relevant curriculum, parental involvement and community support, First Nations students are able to attain and surpass national academic averages.

Ultimately, the AFN assembly adopted 44 resolutions, among them support for the full implementation of the TRC’s calls to action, revitalization of Indigenous languages, action for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the creation of an Indigenous national DNA database.

The major highlight of the AGA was a rousing address by environmentalist icon David Suzuki, who pulled no punches describing the unfolding ecological disaster caused by current resource and economic policies.

“The forests are burning, the rain is not falling, huge algae blooms are choking the oceans and carbon levels in the atmosphere are now at catastrophic, unprecedented levels,” Suzuki told delegates. “I don’t believe that we lack for solutions to our global crisis. The critical hurdle is not economic, it’s not technological; it’s not even political. It is psychological. It is the way that we see the world.

“We’re one species, but we see the world through perceptual lenses that are shaped by gender, ethnicity, religion, social class and so on. And for me, the major clash of these perceptual lenses is between Indigenous perspectives and urban, industrial society around the world. Your struggle for dignity, for recognition of sovereignty over land, for your millennia-old cultures is my struggle for my grandchildren. You are leading my battle, the battle of all who care about a future for the coming generations and I support you all the way.”

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