National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were in lockstep as they listed the gains First Nations had made over the past five years and their respective commitments to keep moving forward.
Unlike Trudeau, however, Bellegarde says his work will continue in a different capacity.
The day before the Assembly of First Nations kicked off its virtual annual general assembly on Dec. 8, Bellegarde announced he would not seek a third term in the top job at the AFN.
In his opening address at the AGA, Bellegarde explained he was not giving up his work but would undertake it in an as yet undetermined capacity.
“I do not want to run for re-election in July of 2021 because running for office is a full-time job in itself. I do not want to spend my time on campaigning. I don’t want us to miss this moment,” he said.
“I want to stay focused on action, on delivering the kinds of change that will benefit First Nations as we emerge from these difficult times and well into the future. And I vow to you … that in the next seven months I will do everything in my power to ensure that our Assembly of First Nations and your next national chief, that they will have resources, the tools and most of all the momentum needed to fulfill the potential of this crucial moment,” said Bellegarde.
Five of Bellegarde’s six years of leading the AFN have coincided with Trudeau leading the federal Liberal government. Trudeau first came to power in 2015 with a majority government. He was re-elected in 2019, forming a minority government.
As Bellegarde pushed “closing the gap” between First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples in areas such as the economy, education and living conditions, Trudeau pledged reconciliation with Indigenous peoples using the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to cement the foundation of what Trudeau has described as the country’s most important relationship—the one with Indigenous peoples.
Trudeau and Cabinet ministers have appeared regularly at chiefs assemblies to make presentations and answer a handful of questions.
Bellegarde has been criticized by other First Nations leaders for being too close to Trudeau and the Liberal government. But on Tuesday, Bellegarde had no issue referring to Trudeau as his friend, acknowledging the PM’s leadership and the “strong, strong collaboration” between them.
It was a sentiment Trudeau returned, complimenting Bellegarde on his “outstanding advocacy and leadership.”
Bellegarde said Trudeau had “helped move so many issues along as we go down that road of reconciliation”, and stressed that everything that had been accomplished now would not have been possible six years ago.
While Bellegarde did not specifically refer to the Stephen Harper Conservative government that led Canada before the Liberals, he pointed out that six years ago the Canadian government said no to an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, fought against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and would never have considered legislation that revitalized Indigenous languages nor gave Indigenous peoples control over their children and families or provided greater flexibility for funding for First Nations education on reserve.
“These are profound changes. We should celebrate them and we should draw inspiration from them because we did that together,” said Bellegarde.
These were accomplishments Trudeau also noted.
However, neither leader talked about targets the Trudeau government had failed to meet, including the promise to do away with long-term boil water advisories in First Nation communities by March 2021. About one dozen advisories will remain past that deadline. Trudeau did say that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller had announced an additional $1.5 billion to complete the work “as soon as possible.”
Trudeau committed to “accelerate work” on legislation that would make First Nations policing an essential service; on a national action plan in response to the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls; and co-development of distinction-based health legislation and a distinction-based mental health and wellness strategy.
The Prime Minister said additional funding had been committed by his government in the fall economic statement to combat systemic discrimination and violence.
Trudeau referenced the violence of non-Indigenous commercial fishers against Mi’kmaw lobster fishers exercising their treaty rights in Nova Scotia, while RCMP reportedly stood by and did nothing.
Bellegarde was brought to tears earlier in the day when he spoke about the deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, both in June, both in New Brunswick and both at the hands of police.
“We’re no better than other humans, but we should never have to accept being treated as something less especially by the people sworn to protect and to help us,” Bellegarde said.
“Each life taken from us, taken from our families, taken from our nations, taken from all who hold them dear, must be a wake-up call for all of Canada. We can’t wait any longer to confront and eliminate the entrenched, pervasive and systemic racism and discrimination that we, as First Nations, face every day of our lives,” said Bellegarde.
“Our government is committed not just to moving forward but moving faster on ending the unacceptable injustices that too many people still face,” said Trudeau.
He also said, in response to a handful of questions from chiefs, that Ottawa was committed to working in partnership with First Nations when it came to delivering services in communities.
“Ottawa can’t drive these. You need to drive these,” Trudeau told the chiefs. “We need to be there to support you with the money and the resources and the capacity to develop that. It takes a little longer and sometimes it’s frustrating, but ultimately it is what will best serve you and your community to be in charge of your own future and that’s the work we are doing together and that’s the work we are going to accelerate through COVID.”
“It’s the work of many more years and generations (in order) to fix what took centuries to break, but at the same time we can make real progress right now this year, this month, this week, by continuing to work together.”