The Liberal government and governments before it have gone from addressing crisis to crisis but a long-term plan is required to recognize treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq people affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada more than two decades ago, says former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous person to hold the federal justice portfolio before she resigned from cabinet in early 2019 over the SNC-Lavalin controversy, said the Liberal government needs to develop what it previously promised: a framework around how Indigenous rights will be recognized.
A framework is needed to recognize issues that Indigenous peoples face in terms of being denied their rights and having to go through the courts to prove that their rights exist, Ms. Wilson-Raybould told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.
“We didn’t have to get to this place,” she said. “This isn’t just with respect to the Mi’kmaq.”
The federal government has faced increased political pressure in recent weeks in the face of growing unrest and violence against the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia. The issue centres around the Mi’kmaq asserting their constitutional right to fish and non-Indigenous fishermen raising concerns about the impact on lobster stocks.
The NDP and Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission probing the country’s residential school legacy, have called the violence acts of terrorism. The RCMP has also faced questions about the way it has responded on the ground.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who now sits as an Independent MP, warned that crises will continue to arise unless concrete action is taken.
“Hopefully they don’t result in the violent action that we are witnessing right now or God forbid somebody gets hurts or loses their lives," she said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said there is no place in the country for that type of violence, which she said is racially motivated.
The lack of legitimate rights recognition of the Mi’kmaq treaty rights has contributed to the current situation, she said, adding that Ottawa will need the political will to act and not succumb to expediency. She also expressed frustration about a federal plan that wasn’t acted upon.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau read Section 35 of the Constitution – which affirms existing aboriginal and treaty rights – during a speech on Feb. 14, 2018, and promised there would be a rights-recognition framework, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said.
“The government knows this is the result," she said. “It is the incumbent upon them, as it was with all governments before them, to do something about it. I hope this government does something about it. There’s still time."
The Liberal government can blame previous governments but it is in power right now, she added.
“They have the ability to do something about it," she said. "There’s been an extraordinary amount of work that has been done and a path that has been laid out.”
During an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Monday evening, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the government and suggested it was not pro-active enough in addressing escalating tension in Nova Scotia. He said his party has raised concerns for more than a month.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau refuted the idea that his government was not pro-active enough. Cabinet ministers have been engaged in monitoring the fishery issue in Nova Scotia, he added.
“We’ve taken this issue extremely seriously,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau also stressed the need to uphold rights that have been long recognized for Indigenous fishermen.
In the 21 years since the Supreme Court of Canada’s Marshall decision affirming the Mi’kmaq’s right to fish, different governments have moved forward on granting licences to Indigenous communities, Mr. Trudeau said.
“We recognize there is a need to continue to accelerate and to end this question by fully recognizing the rights of Indigenous fishers to a moderate livelihood and ensure that is fully in place," he said.
“This is the work we are doing right now. It is not easy work. It is not quick work. It is work that needs to be done properly, respectfully and in partnership with everyone involved in a nation-to-nation relationship and bringing along the commercial fishery community as well.”
On Monday, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said she and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett are looking to appoint a ministerial representative to foster conversations between First Nations and commercial harvesters so “all sides are heard.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the ministers themselves are responsible, as well as the Prime Minister, and that they need to take an active role in resolving the issues.
If ministers feel that they need to appoint a ministerial representative, she said the individual needs to be given strong terms of reference and clarity around what they can do. Their work should also be tied into the broader vision for the government, she added.
“The federal government has a responsibility to recognize and to have a true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples," she said.
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