Federal ministers hold face-to-face meeting with Occupy INAC protesters in Vancouver

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The Council of Mothers stand with federal ministers at the Radisson Hotel in Ric

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Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, met with Indigenous advocacy group Council of Mothers to discuss funding opportunities for Indigenous youth and languages on May 24.

The meeting came as a result of a six-day occupation of Vancouver's Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) office by the Council of Mothers earlier this spring.

It will be "the first of many conversations," said Jerilynn Webster, an Occupy INAC organizer and member of the Council of Mothers. The encounter lasted 90 minutes and took place at a Radisson Hotel near the Vancouver International Airport.

Funding structures will be "renovated"

The Council of Mothers focused on two demands: An increase in funding for Indigenous languages from $5 million to $1.2 billion, or roughly half of what's spent to promote the French language every year, and the reinstatement of Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth (CCAY) -- a program that was axed by the previous government.

When the group tabled the $1.2 billion at the meeting, Webster said the ministers "took it in as a consideration." The ministers didn't commit to immediately reinstating CCAY.

"Budget 2016 provides $5 million per year to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages," said an email from the ministers' offices. "The Government of Canada will work closely with Indigenous groups to consider how to best support Indigenous language and culture beyond 2016-2017."

The ministers will be launching a consultation phase in June, according to Webster, and will work with the Council of Mothers and other grassroots experts. Any funding changes won't take effect until the 2017 budget.

"The first step was the occupation and getting the meeting. And now having the meeting, we're walking," said Webster.

Demanding immediate action

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip also attended the meeting and commended the Council of Mothers for "drawing the attention of the Government of Canada." 

He said of the ministers, "there's a vast difference between saying the right thing and doing the right thing. I think at the meeting they said the right things but the Council of Mothers are demanding immediate action." 

Occupy INAC was launched to call attention to the ongoing suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, a remote reserve in northern Ontario. It is just one of a series of tensions, said Phillip, that are mounting across the country.

"As we move forward and there's no concrete action on the part of either government, I can't help but think we're going to see a rerun of Idle No More, a similar-style movement. People have run out of patience," he said.

Webster says the Council of Mothers look forward to continuing the conversation with the ministers and will keep pushing for the reinstatement of the CCAY and for more funding for Indigenous languages.


Sophie Woodrooffe is a multimedia journalist based in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territories. Follow her on twitter @dswdrff

Photo: The Council of Mothers stand with federal ministers at the Raddisson Hotel in Richmond, B.C. From left: Crystal Smith, Chrisse Oleman, Mélanie Joly, Carolyn Bennett and Jerilynn Webster. Photo by George Kennedy.

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