Perry Bellegarde on what comes next

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he wants Trudeau to consult with First Nations more broadly before ambitious plans

Fred Cattroll

Fred Cattroll

Even as Justin Trudeau makes acting on First Nations’ issues a priority for his new government, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations has a surprising warning for him: talk first, act later.

Perry Bellegarde says he wants the new Prime Minister to consult with First Nations more broadly before he embarks on his ambitious agenda that was outlined in the Speech From the Throne on Friday. That agenda includes launching an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“There has to be a pre-consultation phase and that’s what they are embarking on,” National Chief Bellegarde said in an interview on “Everything is Political” on SiriusXM. “You want to get the terms of reference and authorities and powers of that commission proper. You need to hear from the families and that takes time,” he said.

Bellegarde wants this pre-consultation phase to begin now, but the actual national inquiry to start on April 1, 2016.

Another key issue for the National Chief is access to government. Bellegarde suggests setting up a more formal cabinet structure that will give First Nations leaders predictable and frequent meetings with key ministers. “You might need a cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister,” Bellegarde said. “It’s a chance to have access to the minister of finance, minister of health, minister of indigenous affairs, minister of the environment.”

Demands for this kind of structural change will come as early as Dec. 8, when the Prime Minister is set to meet with First Nation leaders at the Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec.

While Bellegarde is pleased that Indigenous people’s issues are on high the Trudeau agenda, he knows that the distance between federal government rhetoric and reality is sometimes vast. To make sure the government follows through on its promises, Bellegarde will looking closely at the next budget. “All the promises that have been made in the Throne Speech, we need to see reflections in the next Federal budget.”

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 following the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 following the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

A full transcript of Evan Solomon’s interview with Perry Bellegarde follows.

Q: How do you make sure this is not another promise broken?

A: Again, it’s up to us to hold their feet to the fire. The Liberals campaigned hard on a lot of key issues that affect First Nations people. We want to make sure that they live up to that. We’ve still got to work with the opposition as well, and Rona Ambrose, to make sure they hold their feel to the fire. Because it’s all about closing the gap, and improving the quality of life that First Nations people face on a day to day basis, and to make it comparable to what every other Canadian takes for granted.

Q: First steps are important, because some of these things are longer-term and some are shorter-term. Let’s talk about the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. How fast do you want that to be kicked off, and what do you expect to see?

A: There has to be a pre-consultation phase and that’s what they’re embarking on. Because you want to get the terms of reference and authorities and powers of that commission proper. You need to hear from the families, and you know that take time. So getting the terms of reference in place is a first step, and engaging the stakeholders is the proper process to do it. And then let’s get it started this year.

Q: This year meaning this month?

A: Well not this month, no no no. You’re going to have to have a pre-consultation phase, a preparatory phase to get the terms of reference right. I would think next fiscal year beginning April 1.

Q: What about next week? Because they’ve said their priority is to start initiating legislation based on middle-class tax cuts. Would you like to see any legislation as soon as next week related to First Nations and Indigenous peoples?

A: No, I think the first step is for him to come out to our chiefs assembly, which is what he’s doing, next Tuesday morning. We have the AFN chiefs assembly coming up Dec. 8, 9 and 10, and he’s coming in to speak to the chiefs. So it’s all about relationship building. All of the promises that have been made in the throne speech, we need to see reflections in the next federal budget coming up. But it’s all about a relationship where we have the Prime Minister and cabinet accessible to First Nations leadership. Because we’re going to need a process to look over all these things. They talk about not only the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] implementation and calls to action in the inquiry. But renewing the nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, partnership. And the involvement of First Nations people when it comes to reviewing and monitoring resource development projects. That is huge.

Q: Let me just slow you down on that, because these are everyday issues for you, for people they’re not. Nation to nation and resource development. Very big issues. One of the real tricky issues has been consultation versus consent. Consult versus consent. Many people believe the government is obliged to consult with First Nations on some national projects, like a pipeline for example. Some First Nations say ‘No, no, no, it’s not consult, it’s consent.’ In your view, is it consultation, or is it consent, or both?

A: It’s basically—you have a duty to consult and accommodate. That’s the terminology. And the crown has that obligation. So they’ve got to ensure that those proper processes are in place. The crown has that obligation, so the crown must fulfill that obligation. And I’d even go one step further to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which speaks to free prior and informed consent. So those things have to be in place. There has to be a process for a dialogue. There has to be a process where First Nations people have the capacity to engage with government and industry, to work these things through. And it’s all about balancing the economy and the environment. And we need to be involved. That’s what it speaks to.

Q: So it’s interesting, because on the environment they’re going to have a new environmental assessment process, is that something First Nations would like to be involved in?

A: Totally. When they start talking about Indigenous people being more fully engaged in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects, that is huge. As Indigenous people, we have rights, but we also have responsibilities, and one of the big responsibilities is to protect the land and the waters. Does that means we’re going to get more First Nations people involved in the National Energy Board? Does that means we’re going to have an Elders advisory council involved? Does that mean we’re going to have our chiefs and council directly involved? That’s a huge piece. So what we need now is a process to outline the details. We may need a ministerial-level table to have oversight over all these things.

Q: Tell me what that means, a ministerial-level table?

A: Well basically, it might be a cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister, but it’s basically a chance to have access to the minister of finance, the minister of health, the minister of Indigenous affairs, the minister of the environment, the minister of health and culture. Having access with the key ministers as the issues come up.

Q: You want that structural and that’s critical, because access has been an issue. You don’t want to wait until someone deigns to talk to you, have requests, publish public letters, sometimes have to resort to protests. I understand that. You want a structure in place that gives regular and timely access to the concerns of First Nations and Indigenous people on all these projects?

A: That’s just it, that’s exactly what we need. That’s the process, the structural governing process that’s missing that we have to work together on implementing together. That’s when you’ll see action. That’s when you’ll see legislative and policy change. It’s almost like you need a comprehensive policy and law review, because there are some laws that need to be thrown out, and there are some that need to be updated.

Q: Give us some examples?

A: Bill C-38, Bill C-45, the Omnibus bills.

Q: Ok, tell people, C-38…

A: Bill C-38, C-45 were omnibus bills that were put in place by the previous government that made it pretty easy for industry to develop without a stringent regulatory process in place. They were omnibus bills and they were unilaterally passed. So those need to be reviewed and brought in line with Section 35 of Canada’s constitution, which respects existing Aboriginal treaty rights. So those are two examples. Bill C-51 has to be reviewed…

Q: The anti-terror legislation.

A: That’s what needs to happen. A comprehensive federal policy and law review.

Q: The other issue that was raised in the Speech from the Throne had to do with education, and you and I have spoken about this a lot. This is a piece that the Federal government, you know, they don’t deliver education to the provinces or health care to the provinces, but they do for First Nations and Aboriginal people. And there’s fundamentally a gap between if you’re a young Aboriginal person or if you’re not Aboriginal and you’re Canadian, you get more money if you’re not Aboriginal. Tell us about that gap and what you want the Liberal government to close.

A: It’s a fiscal gap that needs to be closed, because it’s the tuition per child. On reserves, the Indian Affairs department gives approximately $6,500 for tuition, and provincial school systems, it’s almost double that at $11,000 or $12,000 per child, and in the French school systems it’s almost to $20,000 per child. So there’s a huge fiscal gap when it comes to tuition, and that needs to be closed. Because that affects teachers, good quality teachers, teachers salaries, that affects the libraries, that affects the computer science labs, that affects extracurricular activities. It affects a whole slew of services and programs that should be made available. And if we’re going to close the gap in quality of life and get First Nations people out of poverty, there is no better way than a good quality education. And so when they start talking about that every child receives a good quality education, I infer from that yes, math and science, strong literacy skills, reading and writing skills, but as well the importance of language and culture is very fundamental to that good quality of life.

Q: And that is a huge issue, the loss of language and culture. What will be the fundamental message the chiefs will deliver on Tuesday when they meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

A: The fundamental message will be ‘work with us, work cooperatively.’ We’ve got to work together to close the gap because it’s really in the best interests of Canada. Make the key strategic investments in education and training and housing and access to potable water. Use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement that as a way and path to reconciliation between Canadians and non-Indigenous Canadians. That’s the message going forward.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.