OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to overhaul the way the federal government relates to Indigenous Peoples, proposing a new legislative framework designed to pave the way toward stronger rights and greater control over their own destiny.
“We need to both recognize and implement Indigenous rights,” Trudeau said Wednesday in a speech in the House of Commons.
“Because the truth is, until we get this part right, we won’t have lasting success on the concrete outcomes that we know mean so much to people.”
The prime minister said the new approach, to be developed in partnership with First Nations, Metis and Inuit, is needed to tackle the many challenges facing their communities, including overcrowded housing, unsafe drinking water and high rates of suicide among Indigenous youth.
“All of these things demand real, positive action — action that must include the full recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights,” Trudeau said. “We need to get to a place where Indigenous Peoples in Canada are in control of their own destiny, making their own decisions about the future.”
The new Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework — to be unveiled later this year following consultations led by Carolyn Bennett, the minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould — will include new legislation.
It will not, however, require re-opening the Constitution, where Section 35 already recognizes these rights, despite, Trudeau acknowledged, the initial reluctance of the Liberal government led by his father, Pierre Trudeau, to include them.
The problem, Trudeau said, is that federal governments have not been fully implementing those rights, forcing Indigenous Peoples to engage in long and costly battles to get the courts to enforce them — a reality the prime minister said has played a role in breaking the relationship time and again.
Many of the details have yet to be decided, but Bennett said one of the real-world implications of the framework will be an easier path to self-determination for individual or groups of First Nations, including by establishing control over a specific area such as education or child welfare.
Right now, there is no way for the federal government to facilitate that without relying on the Indian Act, which Bennett said enforces colonial structures and creates a daunting process that can take two decades of negotiations and millions of dollars to resolve.
“They have to be willing, ready and able to get out from under the Indian Act and we are trying to make that much more attractive,” Bennett told a news conference following the speech.
The consultations, which Trudeau said will also involve provinces, territories, the business community and other non-Indigenous Canadians, will include looking at finding more collaborative ways to resolve disputes.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the statement from Trudeau, adding that it comes during what he called a tough week for Indigenous people.
Bellegarde, referring to the not-guilty verdict late last week of the Saskatchewan farmer who killed 22-year-old Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, said the case has brought issues of systemic racism against Indigenous people to the forefront.
He called the new framework a great opportunity, but said he has reservations that proposed changes would be “dictated” to Indigenous leaders.
“We have to do this jointly in a co-operative, co-developed manner and fashion with treating our leadership as equals around that table,” Bellegarde said in an interview Wednesday.
“We want to make sure that we do this legislation properly and do it right from the beginning with full partnership and inclusion of our people.”
Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, the critic for Indigenous affairs, responded to the speech by promoting the record of the previous government, saying it was former prime minister Stephen Harper who delivered the apology for the Indian residential schools system and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine its legacy of abuse.
New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash, the critic for reconciliation who has been pushing for the government to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also sounded a warning.
“One of the most unacceptable things politicians can do is to eventually quash the hope of the most vulnerable in our society … by breaking yet another promise,” said Saganash, who began by speaking in the Cree language.
“That cannot happen. I will not let that happen again.”
Trudeau’s speech came as the family of Boushie wrapped up their visit to Parliament Hill, where they said they have felt both welcomed and supported in their effort to press the federal government for change following the acquittal of Gerald Stanley charged in the young man’s death.
Trudeau mentioned his meeting with the family in his speech.
“Through all their grief and anger and frustration, their focus was not on themselves and the tragedy they have endured, but on how we must work together to make the system and our institutions better,” Trudeau said.
“Reforms are needed to ensure that — among other things — Indigenous Peoples might once again have confidence in a system that has failed them all too often in the past.”
A number of visibly Indigenous people were excluded without cause from the jury that delivered its verdict last week in the trial over Boushie’s death.
The Liberals have long promised justice reforms, but are now promising to review the use of peremptory challenges, which allow lawyers to reject jury candidates during the selection process.
The Liberal government began signalling this new approach last summer, when Trudeau announced that Bennett, who had been in charge of the Indigenous Affairs Department since 2015, would be joined on the file by former health minister Jane Philpott.
Trudeau also said at the time that the Liberal government was taking steps to move beyond the Indian Act, which was passed in 1876 and has been widely criticized by Indigenous leaders — and Trudeau, too — as colonial and paternalistic.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also recommended an entirely new way of viewing the relationship, including by calling for a “Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation” from the Crown.
Earlier Wednesday, Boushie’s cousin, Jade Tootoosis, told a news conference the family felt excluded and ignored by the justice system following the fatal 2016 shooting but their meetings on and around Parliament Hill this week have made them feel they are finally being heard.
“It’s those welcoming arms, it’s those open doors that’s not only impacted us as a family, but shown that leadership is serious about the issue and the experiences that we have felt,” Tootoosis said.
She said the family will continue working to root out what they describe as systemic racism plaguing the Canadian criminal justice system, and that education and open dialogue will help bring about unity.
“We will we back. We will be speaking out. This does not end here,” she said.
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press