NIAGARA FALLS — Six Nations of the Grand River was pleased to be the host community to the Assembly of First Nations 2016 General Assembly.
The three day conference brought together elected officials from Canada’s reserve communities to discuss key issues under the banner of gaining momentum towards a nation to nation relationship with communities and the federal government.
Indigenous knowledge needed
Environment minister Catherine McKenna was present and re-iterated the importance of traditional indigenous knowledge in assessing climate impacts and resource projects.
Catherine McKenna’s address to the AFN’s annual meeting sounded some now-familiar Liberal government themes: healing the relationship with Canada’s First Nations and consulting with indigenous peoples on a host of policy areas.
McKenna focused much of her speech on a just-completed family vacation that took her to Haida Gwaii, off the northern B.C. coast, and to Dene territory in the Northwest Territories.
“Everyone I’ve met has shared with me why the lands are so important to them and their families,” she said.
McKenna began her 22-minute speech by noting she was the first environment minister to address the Assembly of First Nations in at least a decade, and quite possibly ever.
She asked the chiefs to get involved in ongoing public consultations over the revamping of Canada’s environmental assessment system, and promised that a pan-Canadian climate plan being developed this summer with the provinces and territories is heavy on aboriginal consultation.
Major resource projects are already being assessed, she said, using “the key principles that indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted and, where appropriate, impacts on rights and interests will be accommodated.”
McKenna also said that traditional knowledge will be specifically included in wildlife conservation decisions.
“We know that traditional knowledge provides us with invaluable information. It makes our research more efficient and provides us with first-hand observations about the state of our land, water, flora and fauna,” she said.
Protocol with RCMP signed
RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson was also present at the AFN to discuss how to reconcile First Nations communities and citizens in Canada and the police.
Paulson said the RCMP needs to work in partnership with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples in order to improve relations between the force and the country’s indigenous communities, commissioner Bob Paulson says.
Paulson, whose organization has long been the object of scorn from aboriginal Canadians who feel unfairly treated.
The two sides have developed a joint protocol that spells out the force’s goals of working to ensure indigenous people in Canada are safe, to address diverse needs of communities and to strengthen mutual respect, Paulson said.
“I’m aware this protocol is simply words on paper, and words alone will not improve things,” he said.
“I’m here today to pledge we will put actions to these words so we can continue the healing, continue the building and improve these vital relationships in every way possible.”
Last December, Paulson raised eyebrows when British Columbia Grand Chief Doug Kelly asked him a pointed question about racism within the RCMP during an AFN session in Gatineau, Que.
“I understand there are racists in my police force,” Paulson reportedly replied. “I don’t want them to be in my police force.”
It was important to invite the commissioner back to the July AFN meeting to discuss how to tackle officer misconceptions, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the gathering.
“How can we work together to make sure that air is clear, that cloud is gone?” said Bellegarde. First Nations leaders are aware there are “always going to be issues” that play out with police locally, regionally and nationally, he added.
The question of racism and bias within law enforcement is sure to be a central theme during a forthcoming and long-awaited inquiry into the phenomenon of missing and murdered indigenous women.
The government is expected to announce the mandate of the inquiry sometime this summer; a specific date has not been released.