Don't be fooled by Trudeau's First Nations charm offensive. The Liberals' real agenda will be decided behind closed doors

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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti

Many First Nation leaders and chiefs have been caught under the spell of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's charm offensive. Liberal promises of Indigenous policy reform seem so progressive, especially in contrast to the Harper decade, which featured funding cuts and the denial of Aboriginal and Treaty rights.

The Trudeau government also purchased some good will from chiefs and their organizations across Canada with last year's budget, committing $8.4 billion in new money over a five-year period (past the next federal election), for infrastructure, housing, education and child welfare.

The chiefs of the Quebec region are now caught up in federal-AFN consultation processes, such as a new fiscal relationship, which will likely lead to a new type of funding agreement for a federal transfer payment policy for band councils and First Nation organizations that deliver essential services to their band members. Other consultation processes will address a new housing policy, child welfare, health policy and changes to the federal environmental laws, regulations and climate change.

So, while band councils and their staff go from one consultation workshop to another after being ignored so many years by Ottawa, the PMO and the AFN National Chief's Office have been busy negotiating how the Trudeau government's Indigenous policy promises will be implemented.


Backroom deals

Last summer during the AFN Chiefs' Assembly in Niagara Falls, INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett and AFN Nation Chief Perry Bellegarde signed a memorandum of understanding to review the Canada-First Nations fiscal relationship. This MOU is related to Trudeau's promise to remove the two per cent annual cap on First Nation programs. The cap has been in place since 1995.

At the same time Minister Bennett signed the agreement with the AFN, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the chiefs that it was "unworkable" to put the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into federal law -- even though NDP MP Romeo Saganash has a private member's bill in Parliament that sets out a proposed framework for implementing UNDRIP in Canada. Saganash's bill has been endorsed by a number of human rights and First Nations organizations.

Since last summer, Trudeau has announced an AFN-Cabinet Committee, a National "Reconciliation" Table to address the Truth and Residential Schools Commission calls to action; and a working group of six federal Ministers, chaired by Minister Wilson-Raybould, to review federal policies, laws and operational practices to "de-colonialize" them.

My observation is that the Trudeau government is implementing a two-track approach to federal First Nations policy: first, maintaining the Indian Act dependency programs with the $8.4 billion earmarked in last year's budget and the additional $3.4 billion from yesterday's budget; and second, developing government wide processes for negotiation policies involving rights, which will take "decades" to resolve, according to Trudeau.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has not uttered the words "lands, territories and resources," which are central to the UNDRIP. His focus is on new program dollars to "close the gap," as AFN National Chief Bellegarde likes to proclaim every chance he gets. Trudeau is leaving the land rights issues and self-government policies for the provinces to deal with.

In the Quebec region, there is already the 1975 James Bay Agreement and most of the other northern First Nations in Quebec (except the Algonquins) are at comprehensive claims tables (what I call termination tables). First Nations along the St. Lawrence River Valley are also not negotiating under the federal comprehensive claims policy, which involves extinguishment of Aboriginal title.

Although the federal program dollars are needed for essential services for First Nation members there has been no explicit announcements to change the federal self-government and land claims policies, which are based on extinguishment, denial and municipalization instead of recognition and affirmation of rights, jurisdiction and title.

Now, I have just received a draft document entitled: "Memorandum of Understanding to Support First Nations Jurisdiction and Sovereignty and a Renewed Crown-First Nations Relationship", according to the document it is supposed to be signed on April 21, 2017, between AFN and the Government of Canada by National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The draft document sets out the following "Joint Priorities":

  1. co-development of an Indigenous Languages Act to support the preservation, revitalization and strengthening of Indigenous Languages

  2. co-development of a national action plan (including a legislative framework) to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

  3. ongoing work to develop options for consideration by Chiefs-in-Assembly and federal decision-makers for a new fiscal relationship to ensure sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for First Nations governments

  4. a joint federal law and policy review to decolonize federal law and policies and align federal law and policy with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and First Nations' inherent and Treaty rights

  5. dialogue and planning to identify priorities, and measure progress, to close the socio-economic gap between First Nations and other Canadians;

  6. moving beyond the Indian Act; and

  7. such other priorities as may be jointly agreed to.

The document is cleverly written as a political accord, but the devil will be in the details and Minister Wilson-Raybould will be taking the lead on this national process. Wilson-Raybould's political career, ranging from crown prosecutor to land claims negotiator in British Columbia, has always been about colouring within the colonial lines.

So despite the charming style of Prime Minister Trudeau and the apparent kindness of his Cabinet ministers, I advise First Nations to look for substantive changes in federal policy and law. Because on the ground, I've seen little change from the Harper government's approach on key issues like self-determination or land rights.

My experience is that Liberals like to implement their agenda by stealth using public relations messaging but working behind closed doors. That's why Trudeau is using a secret AFN-federal Cabinet committee and a partisan ministers working group to review policy and law in backrooms until they are ready to use their parliamentary majority to force changes to First Nations legislation and policy with "willing partners" among First Nation leaders and chiefs through mandates obtained through the AFN Chiefs' Assemblies.

Russell Diabo is Editor and Publisher of an online newsletter that covers First Nations political and legal issues, the First Nations Strategic Bulletin. He is a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, Quebec, and has been an activist on First Nation issues since the age of 16 and is part of the Defenders of the Land Network. He works closely with Idle No More under a joint agreement between these two networks to work together.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Kahnawake newspaper Iori:wase.

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