(Originally published in Lawyer's Daily on April 17, 2017)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swept the Liberals into power on Oct.19, 2015, with the support of Indigenous peoples who voted in record numbers. Trudeau’s election platform consisted of core promises made to the Chiefs in Assembly on July 7, 2015, which would include the review and repeal of legislation unilaterally imposed on First Nations by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Trudeau confirmed his government’s commitment at a subsequent meeting of the Chiefs of Assembly on Dec. 8, 2015.
This was a significant commitment for First Nations since the unilateral imposition of these laws by the Harper government had inspired the largest social movement in Canada’s history: Idle No More. Indigenous peoples took to the streets for nearly a year protesting Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that would remove protections for various waterways; Bill C-27 First Nations Financial Transparency Act; Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve; Bill S-6 First Nation Elections; Bill S-8 Safe Drinking Water; and Bill C-428 Indian Act Abolishment. All of these bills involved some form of increased government control, something First Nations were not willing to accept. In addition to protests, First Nations decided to tackle these unconstitutional laws head on in the courts.
Mikisew Cree Nation won their initial case in Federal Court challenging Harper’s failure to consult on two omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45; and Onion Lake Cree Nation won their federal court battle against Bill C-27.
While Idle No More activities on the ground eventually subsided, First Nation discontent with federally imposed legislation continued to grow throughout Harper’s mandate. There was significant opposition and protests against Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, which targeted the political activities of Indigenous peoples.
The situation came to a head when Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo publicly supported Harper’s Bill C-33 First Nation Control of First Nations Education Act without informing or consulting First Nations. The resulting widespread cries for Atleo’s removal led to his resignation and put a serious strain on an already fragile relationship between First Nations and the federal government. Trudeau’s election promises offered a welcome path forward.
However, Trudeau’s first budget was a major disappointment not only for failing to address the many overlapping crises in First Nation social conditions, but also for completely ignoring his promises to repeal Harper’s legislation. The resulting First Nation criticism is likely what led to this year’s announcement that Trudeau’s government has created a ministerial working group to review all laws and policies related to indigenous peoples. The working group consists of the ministers for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Fisheries, Justice, Health, Families and Natural Resources and will be chaired by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
On its face, the announcement appears to be an indication of the Trudeau government moving in the right direction in the promised nation to nation relationship. However, we do not have either a specific budget for this work or a terms of reference that specifies who will be engaged in the review, the time frame for completion, or the ultimate objectives.
The worst thing that could happen is yet another government committee struck to review its own laws, with its own legal interpretations of what does and does not violate the Constitution, cementing it firmly in its own colonial and paternalistic mindset.
Most will recall that Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, struck out big time with his 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy calling for the elimination of Indian status, reserves and treaty rights. This ministerial review committee risks the same fate without First Nation leaders and experts at the table. Another core concern is that the scope of this review has been enlarged so much that this committee could spend years reviewing hundreds of laws and policies instead of repealing the handful that Trudeau promised to repeal.
Therein lies the other problem with Trudeau’s legal review committee — it is based on a nation to nation relationship that begins and ends with the AFN. This comprehensive legal and policy review must be done in partnership with the actual Aboriginal and treaty rights holders themselves; i.e., First Nations and treaty signatories, not the AFN. This is a critical first step before Trudeau’s vision of “a complete renewal of Canada’s nation to nation relationship with indigenous peoples” can be realized. It will require Trudeau’s working group to negotiate the terms of reference with representatives of the rights holders on a nation basis, like the Mi’kmaw Nation, or on a treaty basis, like engaging with all First Nations in Treaty 4, for example. It is possible for regional and other representative organizations to participate, so long as it is the rights holders themselves who mandate them to engage in this process.
To date, Trudeau has not asked how our nations want to be represented or engaged in this legislative review. First Nations in Canada are not the mythical race of “Indians” created by the Indian Act. They do not have one culture, one language or one set of laws. First Nations are part of larger Indigenous nations with laws, governments, histories and politics as varied as those found in the United Nations.
If Trudeau is serious about transforming the relationship with indigenous peoples, he will have to abandon the colonial requirement that all First Nations speak with one voice. Canadians don’t speak with one voice, nor do the provinces and territories. To expect more of First Nations is an adherence to racist stereotypes of the past which have no place in a multinational, democratic Canada that is truly committed to reconciliation, reparation and renewal. The terms of reference will be the real indication as to whether Trudeau is serious about a renewed relationship.