Making Reconciliation Work

A conversation with Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations
March 1, 2016

Perry Belleharge

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde talks to the Monitor about the political opportunities and priorities in the TRC’s 94 calls to action

The Monitor: In mid-December, you participated in a meeting with the prime minister, several cabinet ministers and other Indigenous leaders to discuss how to implement the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report. Can you tell us how this process has unfolded since? 

Perry Bellegarde: At the meeting in December, we exchanged preliminary views on how to work together to renew the relationship between Canada and First Nations. The TRC rightly points to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework to guide our work on reconciliation. Both Canada and the Assembly of First Nations have agreed with that approach and that is a very good start. That means we must work together to ensure that First Nations lead the way on matters such as First Nations education, revitalization of Indigenous languages, and ending discrimination in the child welfare system.

Over the past month, the AFN executive and I met with Minister of Finance Bill Morneau about the opportunity for action in Budget 2016. I have also met with many of his cabinet colleagues. Budget 2016 is the first opportunity to remove the 2% cap on funding of essential services for First Nations, such as education, health, social services and infrastructure. Canada and First Nations have a great deal of lost time to make up for, and that means catch-up funding also is needed in First Nations education, languages, housing and infrastructure. 

There is other action we can take together. I have emphasized the need for Canada and First Nations to establish, as soon as possible, a joint review of key federal laws and policies. For example, federal “land claims” and “self-government” policies are not consistent with our rights as peoples. There are key aspects of environmental assessment and protection laws that do not respect our inherent and treaty rights. Implementation of the TRC’s calls to action is a big job but these are some clear first steps to get started. We must act now to close the unacceptable gap in the quality of life between First Nations people and Canadians. 

You frequently refer to “real reconciliation.” What does this mean for you?

Real reconciliation is about First Nations people being accepted and having First Nations decisions respected in matters affecting our lives, our communities, our children and our future. It’s about rebuilding a broken relationship by improving understanding and awareness of our shared history and the benefits of a shared future. It’s about restoring the nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown, to address our shared challenges head-on as true partners.  

We must all do our part to educate ourselves about our shared history and our shared future. We are all in this together. It means the full participation of Indigenous peoples in resource and development decision-making, and in the design of climate change strategies and energy strategies. It means schools and homes for our children and families. And it means Canadians freeing their minds of stereotypes, and creating the space to see our people as healthy, valuable people with much to contribute. 

Real reconciliation will mean First Nations will walk proud. We will speak our languages and be healthy and thriving in our chosen professions, both on our lands or wherever we choose to reside. 

The 94 calls to action in the TRC cover a mind-boggling range of inequities in government–First Nations relations, and between First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and the rest of Canada. In your view, are there any priority areas that can or must be addressed first? For example, is it most important to establish the broad framework for ongoing conversations, to receive immediate new funding for neglected social services, or to legislate change (e.g., to the legal system, education, etc.), or can it all progress simultaneously?

We are prioritizing the calls to action as directed by Chiefs-in-Assembly. But yes, we can make progress across all areas simultaneously and we must. There is a broad framework that will fulfil the meaning behind the TRC’s work—and that is closing the socioeconomic gap and bringing Canada’s laws and policies in line with the UNDRIP. We can only achieve true reconciliation when we close the gap in the quality of life between First Nations people and Canada. The gap holds all of us back from reaching the full potential of this country. Maintaining the gap costs all of us. 

Our plan points the way to real change for all of us. It includes dedicated, strategic investments and concrete action in priority areas, including First Nations control of First Nations education, the development of a co-ordinated national action plan to address and end violence against Indigenous women and girls, investments in First Nations housing and child and family services, the implementation of rights, respect for the environment and revitalizing Indigenous languages.

What is your hope that this time things will be different—that the goal of reconciling First Nations–government relations, federal and provincial, will receive the attention it demands? Are there risks reconciliation will fade away as a national priority, as it did in Australia and many Latin American nations where TRCs were carried out?

There is unprecedented attention on First Nations priorities, and these are Canada’s priorities. Clearly, the time for action is now and the world is watching Canada. Every few months, there is a new report documenting the gap in well-being and the human rights crisis it represents. We must do more than measure the gap—we must act now to close it. We cannot let another generation of First Nations children down. The TRC’s calls to action and the UN declaration are our road map. We will be relentless in our efforts and will not waste this opportunity for fundamental change. 

The Liberal government has said it will review recent cases of federal lawyers trying to pass the buck to avoid paying settlements in cases of abuse at Canada’s residential schools. How confident are you that this legal tactic was a political directive from the last government and not simply standard operating procedure?

The AFN fully supports all former students of residential schools and will continue to work to ensure they and their families achieve the justice and healing they deserve. I’m confident we have a new relationship with the federal government and we will achieve change. A joint review of Canada’s approach to litigation in this and other areas affecting First Nations rights is a critically important task, one that we have identified as a pressing priority.  

In early February, you said one of the biggest reasons why there is such a gap between First Nations and other Canadians is the historic mismanagement of First Nations resources. This was in a statement of support for the Poundmaker Cree and Onion Lake First Nations’ lawsuit claiming mismanagement of oil and gas revenues by the government agency Indian Oil and Gas Canada. Broadly speaking, what does reconciliation look like when it comes to developing resources in Canada?

Reconciliation will happen when a respectful relationship has been restored between First Nations and Canada. That requires working together to bring about the changes in law and policy that are needed to respect First Nations rights under the Constitution and UNDRIP. To achieve reconciliation in the area of lands and resources we need a joint law and policy review and a joint review of Canada’s approach to litigation. We need to do this to realize the approach set out by the prime minister and by the speech from the throne—an approach based on respect, rights recognition and renewed nation-to-nation relationships. 

Reconciliation will be achieved when First Nation communities are thriving and successful, reaping environmentally responsible and balanced benefits from our lands and resources. It will mean First Nations at the table sharing knowledge and decision-making at all stages of the development process. It will mean our rights and title are upheld and our participation will be a priority, not an afterthought. It will mean First Nations are no longer poor in our own homelands.  

How can Canada’s settler peoples actively participate in the reconciliation process? 

Everyone has a role in reconciliation. It’s difficult to script a to-do list, but Canadians can do all they can to open their hearts and minds to an accurate understanding and perception of First Nations people. We are leaders, doctors, mothers, sons, hunters, teachers. Our goals are very similar—to achieve the very best for our families and communities. Once we can all get behind the concept of embracing the traditions and contributions of everyone in this country, we will achieve real reconciliation. It starts with the heart and the mind. 

This article was published in the March/April 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.