Indigenous leaders refusing to meet with premiers shows a deep need for reconciliation

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By Meagan Gillmore

For the second year in a row, three representatives of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples did not attend meetings with the provincial and territorial premiers.

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Métis National Council (MNC) president Clement Chartier and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed declined to attend a meeting held earlier this week with the provincial and territorial premiers before the premiers began their summer meetings in Saint Andrews, N.B.

The premiers met from July 18 to 20.

The three leaders also declined to attend last year’s meetings in Edmonton, holding a joint press conference to express their concerns about not being fully included in meetings with the premiers.

“We are not just another special interest group,” Chief Bellegarde said in a press release issued at the time.

The leaders declined this year’s invitation for various reasons. Chief Bellegarde said in a statement sent to Context that he wasn’t attending because “there’s been no progress in addressing the concerns raised last year about moves by premiers to minimize First Nations participation not only in meetings with premiers, but all federal-provincial-territorial ministerial-level meetings.”

Roger Augustine, regional chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, had planned to attend the meeting to support First Nations in his region, the statement says. That changed when the AFN learned First Nations leadership identified on the draft agenda hadn’t been contacted, received invitations, or “treated with appropriate protocol and respect,” the statement said.

MNC president Chartier told CBC he wasn’t attending because he has not seen any progress on the Metis nation being respected as a government. He also said he has not seen much progress from the premiers’ meetings he has attended in the past. He would be more interested in attending a meeting with just premiers from the Western provinces where the Métis homeland is.

ITK’s Obed was unable to attend because he was at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Utqiagvik, Alaska. This international meeting of Inuit takes place every four years.

The leaders’ decision to not attend the meetings is “unfortunate,” a spokesperson for the executive council office said in an email to Context on Tuesday, noting progress on First Nations and Indigenous communities’ interests can only be made through building strong relationships of collaboration and mutual respect.

“We look forward to having productive discussions and making progress on issues that are critically important to Indigenous people,” the statement continued.

Robert Bertrand, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) and Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, did attend the meeting on Wednesday.

The situation shows the hurt that still exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, says Crystal Lavallee, a Métis woman who is also a producer with Crossroads’ First Peoples Voices.  “Non-Indigenous people should see this as a challenge to learn what they’re doing wrong when relating to Indigenous people and how they can change,” she said.

“Relationships are the basis for proper protocol with Indigenous peoples, and it’s not enough to just write a letter or have a meeting simply to meet political requirements,” she went on to say, “government leaders need to visit communities and really listen to the people’s stories.”

This is an opportunity for non-Indigenous governments to, “take a knee and say, ‘I’m sorry.'”

Lavallee admits she doesn’t think political processes can guarantee reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.

“Reconciliation in the Bible is about people being reconciled to God and the forgiveness of sin. Racial reconciliation is different because it focuses on correcting stereotypes – like the stereotypes that Indigenous people are drunk or lazy, and it’s also about building respect and learning to live together so future generations don’t suffer,” she said.

The mainstream press is reporting on Indigenous issues more and people are becoming more aware of the problems that exist – but, things are improving, and Lavallee stresses, “This is all an opportunity for the Church to repent of historical wrongs done in Jesus’ name and then work to solve the challenges faced by many Indigenous communities.”

Photo: CBC

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