The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has taken the unusual step of inviting the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations to join the Canadian delegation attending the international conference on climate-change next week in Paris.
It is a gesture that was welcomed by Perry Bellegarde, who has led the indigenous organization for nearly a year, as a demonstration of the new government's interest in repairing a frayed relationship with Canada's first peoples.
First Nations people have a huge stake in the environmental health of the planet, Mr. Bellegarde said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "We are basically the first to experience the impacts of climate change," he said. "We've got to be directly involved in developing any new approaches to deal with its impact because we still hunt, we fish, we trap, we gather. We're still people of the land."
But, despite the national chief's interest in being part of the international effort to address global warming, he said he plans to use the opportunity of his first sustained contact with Mr. Trudeau since the October election to press a whole range of concerns that he says are central to his people's prosperity. "I am going to seize any opportunity that I can to have a lot of one-on-ones with the Prime Minister, to talk about our issues going forward," Mr. Bellegarde said.
The national chief has a long to-do list for the federal government, including dealing with overcrowded housing and boil-water advisories on reserves; hold the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women; share resource revenues; remove the 2-per-cent cap on social transfers; find new mechanisms for enforcing inherent and treaty rights; protect the environment; enhance indigenous languages; and implementing the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the harms done by residential schools.
A federal budget will come down in the new year, a Throne Speech will be read on Dec. 4 and First Nations will be looking with keen interest at both of those documents, said Mr. Bellegarde. "So, when you ask what are the things we want to talk to the Prime Minister about, well, our number one thing is to influence the Throne Speech to make sure that these priorities are somehow seen and reflected."
If First Nations leaders are not satisfied, they may have the chance to voice their objections to Mr. Trudeau in person at an annual chiefs' assembly in Gatineau, Que., in the second week of December. Mr. Trudeau has been asked to attend and Mr. Bellegarde is optimistic that the invitation will be accepted.
An appearance by the Prime Minister at the Gatineau meeting would mark "an embracing of the sunny ways which he talks about," said Mr. Bellegarde, who described the relationship between the First Nations and the Liberal government in these early days as "hopeful."
So far, the Liberal approach to the indigenous file has been significantly different to that taken by the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper, who balked at meeting with large numbers of chiefs in one room. Under the Conservatives, the negotiations between Ottawa and the First Nations were generally more adversarial than collaborative.
But two members of the new Liberal cabinet – Health Minister Jane Philpott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett – have already met with the AFN executive to discuss ways of moving forward together.
"I think that it's about the relationship, first and foremost," said Ms. Bennett who also used the word "hopeful" to describe it. Her intention over the next four years, she said, is to enhance the rights, respect, co-operation and partnership with Canada's indigenous people.
"It is about being able to put one foot in front of the other," she said, "and to be able to achieve these goals, which are mutual, with honest dialogue and partnership that recognizes that the needs are great, but the relationship needs to be repaired – and that's job number one."