The man who leads the Assembly of First Nations is launching his campaign for re-election by pointing to the large amounts of money the federal government has devoted over the past three years to improving the lives of Indigenous people.
But those who are challenging Perry Bellegarde for the job of National Chief accuse the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau of imposing measures on the First Nations without consultation and of failing to take actions to foster independence.
With a month and a half remaining before chiefs from across the country decide who will be the next head of Canada’s largest Indigenous advocacy group, the relationship between Canada and the AFN has become the battleground issue.
“I think back to when everybody was so excited about the Kelowna Accord” of 2005 in which then-prime minister Paul Martin promised more than $5-billion over five years to improve Indigenous education, employment and living conditions, Mr. Bellegarde said in a telephone interview on Monday after making his candidacy official.
“Through our negotiating and through our lobbying and advocacy efforts, we have $17-billion over seven fiscal years” in promises made by the Trudeau Liberals, he said. “That’s money for housing, for education, for water, for infrastructure, to end discrimination for child welfare. But we’re not done yet. We have momentum but we’re not done yet. The gap [between the standard of living of First Nations people and the rest of Canada] is still huge. That’s why I want to run again.”
But Russ Diabo, a First Nations activist from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, who is also running to be national chief, says Mr. Trudeau’s “charm offensive” masks the government’s drive to stifle the inherent and treaty rights of Canada’s Indigenous people.
“I think the Trudeau government represents a threat to our rights. The way they’ve operated right from the beginning is in secrecy,” Mr. Diabo says. “When they bring things out, it’s without consulting our people, let alone the AFN who they have signed these top-down agreements with.”
Mr. Diabo points to a number of initiatives that he says have been introduced by the Liberals without proper negotiation, including the release of 10 principles that guide the government’s Indigenous relations, the splitting in two of the Indigenous Affairs Department, and a framework the government is promising to have in place by October, 2019, for implementing Indigenous rights.
The billions of dollars the government has committed, over successive budgets, to help Indigenous people is a “drop in the bucket” compared to what’s needed, Mr. Diabo said. “It’s all based on on-reserve Indian Act dependency programs. And he’s [Mr. Bellegarde] not addressing the broader needs for lands, territories and resources.”
Mr. Diabo and Mr. Bellegarde are two of five candidates in the election for National Chief that will be decided at a convention in Vancouver on July 25. The others are Katherine Whitecloud, a former AFN regional chief for Manitoba; Miles Richardson, a former president of the Council of the Haida Nation; and Sheila North, the former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak in northern Manitoba.
Ms. North said Monday that Mr. Bellegarde is celebrating the money that has been offered by the federal government but has not mentioned the challenges faced by First Nations people and communities.
The government has shown good intentions and good will, “but I don’t think it’s gone far enough,” Ms. North said. “When you consider how much will be spent [to purchase the Kinder Morgan pipeline] compared to how much was spent on ending boil-water advisories, that clearly shows their priorities are not with First Nations.”
But Mr. Bellegarde gives the current government credit for launching an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, for starting to implement the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for eliminating a 2-per-cent cap on increases to First Nations education and for reviewing federal laws and policies to determine how they affect Indigenous people.
“We have to have a relationship and a rapport” with the federal government, he said, “and we need to bring about change and policy legislation and influence that federal budget every year. And we have been able to do that. But we’re not done yet.”