The head of the Assembly of First Nations says he will ask leaders of all federal parties to promise during this year’s election campaign to hold a First Ministers' meeting in 2020 specifically to discuss the constitutional and resource rights of Indigenous people.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, said in an interview on Tuesday that the First Nations, the federal government, the provinces and the territories must have a clear understanding of their jurisdictions and responsibilities as companies press forward with development on First Nations ancestral land.
Mr. Bellegarde’s request for a gathering of First Ministers is, in part, a response to the arrests of Indigenous protesters at a pipeline project in British Columbia last week. He said he raised the idea of the meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday when the AFN executive met behind closed doors with members of the Liberal cabinet. Mr. Trudeau, he said, was “non-committal.”
With a countrywide vote scheduled for October, the National Chief said he will be lobbying the Liberals, as well as the Conservatives, the New Democrats and the Green Party, to make campaign commitments to call a First Ministers meeting on Indigenous issues in the summer or fall of next year.
“It’s all about talking about resource-revenue sharing,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “And the provinces have a big role to play when they issue licences and permits to companies operating in provincial boundaries.” Provinces and territories also rely heavily on royalties from the extraction of resources such as oil, gas and minerals.
Even though Indigenous rights were written into the Constitution, and even though First Nations have won numerous court cases when their rights – including their resource rights – have been challenged, Mr. Bellegarde said there is still much uncertainty on the part of the provinces and the federal government about what that means in terms of whose laws must be respected.
“So let’s clarify our roles and responsibilities and authorities and jurisdiction,” he said. ″We need to have a process to clarify that with respect to all laws – common law, civil law and First Nations law – and we need a First Ministers' conference to do that. And yes, we are going to have difficult conversations about revenue sharing. The federal government can say they support revenue sharing all they want. But it also involves the provincial governments. So we need to have them at the table."
The RCMP arrested 14 people last week at a blockade on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory in northwestern British Columbia while enforcing a court injunction to allow Coastal GasLink workers and contractors access to a site where a natural gas pipeline is planned.
Those arrests set off protests by Indigenous people across the country. And Mr. Bellegarde opened his meeting with Mr. Trudeau and cabinet ministers this week by reminding them of their commitment to treat Indigenous people with respect.
“Prime Minister, we recently saw in the past number of days, a week ago, an RCMP action within Wet’suwet’en territory,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “And we say it was not respectful of our laws, of our peoples' rights. That’s what we say. We saw that. We all acknowledge that. We view it that First Nations' law was vetoed by Canada’s domestic law in the assumed Crown sovereignty over our lands and territories."
Mr. Trudeau did not respond to Mr. Bellegarde’s remarks before the media were ushered out of the room.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Trudeau will take time to consider Mr. Bellegarde’s request. The Conservatives did not respond when asked if they would commit to holding a First Ministers' meeting on Indigenous issues.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May quickly said “yes” to scheduling such an event, as did NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“We fully support the AFN National Chief’s call," Mr. Singh said. "Talk about Reconciliation is meaningless without concrete action to address land and resource rights of Indigenous people. Parliament recognized that the future development of our country is dependent on a positive and committed relationship with Indigenous people.”
Mr. Bellegarde said it is important to stress that First Nations are not opposed to development. “But we want sustainable development with our rights recognized,” he said. “And we also have respect for the land and water to be protected. So this First Ministers' conference would basically clarify jurisdiction.”