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Missing from the Premier’s Summit: Indigenous Legitimacy

Premier's overlook Section 35 of the Charter at their peril

by Darrah Teitel

Premiers. Photo: Darrah Teitel
Premiers. Photo: Darrah Teitel
Photo: Darrah Teitel
Photo: Darrah Teitel

The most interesting participants of the Council of the Federation's summer meeting of premiers? Those who didn't show up.

Leadership from the most prominent Canada-wide Indigenous organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Inuit Tapitiit Kanatami and the Metis National Council were not at the annual meeting of premiers in Edmonton this past week. The fact of their absences dominated the news cycle and brings into focus the fragility of provincial jurisdiction without Indigenous consent. The brand new NDP Government of British Colombia was also absent.

Past Council of Federation (CoF) meetings have always been proceeded by a “pre-meeting” between the five National Indigenous Organizations (NIOs), which also include the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), and the premiers of Canada. This year, refusing to be sidelined at a pre-meeting, three of the five declined the invitation to attend an event that doesn’t respect their international or constitutional right to be included in the highest-level conversations that impact them.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde confirmed by e-mail that NWAC and CAP were not invited to join the boycott, saying: “The discussion was amongst the three national organizations representing Indigenous peoples.”

Francyne D. Joe, newly in the president role at NWAC, said to reporters that her members expect her to be at any meeting where she can advocate for women to the premiers, who she hopes will help repair the flailing MMIWG Inquiry. However, the fact that NWAC accepts stakeholder status, as opposed to governmental status, should not distract us from a conversation about what a nation-to-nation relationship means.

The meaning of the three national Indigenous groups’ absence is not that Indigenous leaders reject meetings with the premiers; it’s that, without Indigenous membership, the CoF itself is invalid. According to National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the AFN, “Our status, as peoples, and as nations, has been affirmed and recognized by Treaty, by the Constitution and international law. Canada must change the way it sees itself. Canada must commit itself to the full participation of First Nations as governments and peoples, not as stakeholders. And the way forward is inclusion, not exclusion and control. This past year we have either been relegated to a side-meeting or excluded entirely from national talks on the environment, cultural heritage and the health accord, for example. We shouldn’t have to fight to be at those tables.”

In response to a question regarding the federal government’s commitments to use a nation-to-nation approach and whether the provinces would commit to the same, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said that the premiers want to emphasize results over process. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also recited the line about not getting bogged down in “process.” What the two premiers dismissed as “process” is in fact a centuries-old and legally-validated assertion of Indigenous sovereignty. Recognition of Indigenous governments, enshrined in Section 35 of the Canadian Charter and elsewhere, is not some banal formality for settler government leaders to adhere to; it contains the legal basis of nation of Canada. 

The dangers of sidelining First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders from conversations about economic development of their lands is not just a problem for Indigenous peoples. It is a major legal problem for provinces and the federal government, as well as a trade problem. Persistently moving ahead with plans to sell crude bitumen overseas, for example, is both a national and international liability, considering construction for the required pipelines will be stalled in the courts - likely for a very long time - as First Nations assert their sovereignty and their right to free, prior and informed consent.

“The decision with respect to the pipeline going west is that the federal government, as our constitution gives it the right to make that decision, has made that decision. People who are opposed to that decision certainly have the right to have it reviewed in the courts… that will happen in the early fall,” declared Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in her first press conference at the CoF table, laying out extraction industry logic as straight as it gets.

“Deliberately excluding indigenous presence at any table when extraction decisions are being made only guarantees future conflict and litigation,” says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) by phone after the CoF meetings.

And the price-tag of litigation is hefty already. Roughly $100 million dollars of Canadian government money is spent litigating against First Nations on the federal level alone. Notley must knows that provincial, territorial and federal extraction projects that are constitutionally illegal are a problem, and should not be business as usual for Canadian governments, but the Alberta premier, like the others in attendance, is plowing ahead anyway.

At the same press conference, Notley spoke of the provinces and territories’ consolidated support for resource extraction projects, which includes pipelines such as Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain project. Of course, this statement of support does not include the voice of BC's new new NDP-Green, which turns the CoF’s supposedly united stand on pipelines further into a mirage. Without British Columbia and without Indigenous consent, the position of the CoF this past week becomes nearly worthless. Without these participants at the table, their consensus-seeking conversations on topics including the opioid crisis, economic development and the criminal justice system also lack credibility.

In short, Indigenous exclusion from the CoF calls the whole summit into question.



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