National chief pans systemic racism as AFN launches virtual general assembly

National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaking from Ottawa at the virtual general assembly. Photo: APTN

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) blasted systemic racism and laid out his lobbying plans for the remainder of his term during the organization’s annual general assembly on Tuesday.

An emotional Perry Bellegarde held back tears as he mentioned Rodney Levi, Chantel Moore, Joyce Echaquan, and all those who died in 2020 at the hands of authorities charged with their protection.

“To all those who have been lost, to all of those who’ve been taken from us I say: We love you,” said Bellegarde, who paused, overwhelmed with emotion, before continuing. “We value you. We remember you. And you will continue to motivate us to create the change we all want and we need.”

First Nations chiefs normally travel to Ottawa in Algonquin territory for the December gathering but went online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the leaders in the afternoon and fielded a series of questions from the chiefs.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in just a few years. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there is much more to be done. I hear you when you say that the status quo isn’t good enough,” said Trudeau.

“I hear you when you say, to quote National Chief Bellegarde, that this pandemic exacerbates the already dire circumstances in which too many live. I hear you and I agree.”

Prime Minister Trudeau answered questions from his office during the general assembly. Photo: APTN/File

Bellegarde announced Monday that he won’t seek another term when chiefs cast their votes for a new AFN head in July. His speech touted progress First Nations made over his six-year tenure as national chief and called for immediate action to stamp out institutional racism in Canada’s policing and health-care systems.

“Cultural safety must be integrated into national health-care standards. Failure to meet these standards must have real consequences, and our people need a safe way to report mistreatment and abuse that will produce results,” said Bellegarde. “No one wants the death of Joyce Echaquan to have been in vain.”

Echaquan, 37, an Atikamekw Nation mother of seven, recorded health-care workers taunting her with racist insults before she died in a Quebec hospital in September.

Levi and Moore, who were both First Nations, were shot and killed by police only days apart in New Brunswick.

Reforming policing in Canada

On that subject, Bellegarde said the country needs to make First Nations-led policing an essential service and deliver on RCMP reform, which Trudeau promised to do.

Bellegarde stressed the urgency by accusing the RCMP of betraying the Mi’kmaq as they exercised a constitutionally-protected treaty right to fish in Nova Scotia.

“We witnessed the racist backlash that followed. The overtly racist actions of the commercial fishers was disheartening but not entirely surprising,” he said. “What was shocking was the betrayal of the local RCMP officers who ignored the mounting tensions and allowed this violence to erupt. This is what we mean by systemic racism.”

Had the roles been reversed, the Mounties never would’ve allowed the attacks to escalate as they did to floating blockades, boat chases, mob vigilantism, assaults and arson, Bellegarde added.

Trudeau also condemned these instances of death and violence.

“No one should face threats while exercising their treaty right to fish. No one should face violence at the hands of police and no one should face fear about what may happen or has happened to a mother, sister or daughter. That is unacceptable.”

Pandemic recovery

Like the rest of the country, First Nations spent the bulk of 2020 dealing with the potentially deadly pandemic. Communities made use of stringent lockdowns, travel bans and checkpoints to weather the first wave.

But the second wave landed hard in some First Nations.

“There is an opportunity to build back better,” said Bellegarde, echoing language Trudeau used to describe Canada’s pandemic recovery plan.

“But more than that, I would say that Canada must build back better – and must be better and do better as a country.”

This means addressing the gap in the quality of life that exists between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities, said the national chief. He pointed to a lack of access to health care, the housing crisis and lack of potable water on reserves.

During the height of the second wave, Neskantaga First Nation members had to be evacuated from their northwestern Ontario homes after an “oily sheen” tainted the community’s water supply.

Residents of Shamattawa in northern Manitoba highlighted the housing crisis on their reserve not long before positive coronavirus cases skyrocketed and military aid in the form of the Canadian Rangers had to be deployed.

“That gap amplifies every threat and every harm from this pandemic – from this risk of infection to the stress of lockdown,” said Bellegarde.

The opening song was broadcast online instead of played live in a crowded room as usual. Photo: APTN/File

The Liberal government recently admitted they would not fulfill their promise to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021.

Trudeau said they did manage to lift 98 long-term advisories and prevent 171 short-term ones from becoming long term. The Liberals proposed to invest $1.5 billion for water as well as $1.8 billion over seven years for infrastructure during their fall fiscal update.

Many of the chiefs’ questions centred on the difficulty communities face in navigating the federal Indigenous bureaucracy in order to quickly obtain funds for clean water, housing, health services, education and more.

“I think your bureaucrats are not doing you justice in terms of the things that you are trying to do, and I say that respectfully,” Chief David Monias told the prime minister.

Trudeau replied that “a whole series of interconnections” need to happen before cash that Ottawa pledges actually gets into people’s hands to make a difference.

“These are all things that we need to work on together, and folks in Ottawa don’t always know how they best fit together,” he admitted.

“Ottawa can’t drive these. You need to drive these and we need to be there to support you with the money and the resources and the capacity to develop that. It takes a little longer, and sometimes it’s frustrating, but ultimately it is what will best serve you and your community to be in charge of your own future and that’s the work we are doing together.”

Lack of MMIWG action plan and a proposed UNDRIP action plan

The national chief voiced support for Chief Connie Big Eagle and the AFN women’s council as First Nations push governments to act on the recommendations of the national missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) inquiry.

Another missed deadline, the Liberals promised to deliver an action plan to implement the inquiry’s calls to justice on the final report’s one-year anniversary. Trudeau re-committed to accelerating the work.

“It’s now a year and a half later, and still there is no plan,” said Bellegarde. “The families who poured their hearts into that inquiry deserve action.”

But the Trudeau administration did meet one deadline, a promise to table legislation by end of 2020 that would help align federal laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Justice Minister David Lametti introduced Bill C-15 in the House of Commons last week. The new statute, if passed, would affirm that the declaration applies to Canadian law and create a framework to implement UNDRIP’s 46 articles, which lay out global human rights standards for the survival and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Bellegarde said there would have been “no hope” four years ago for such legislation or the Liberals’ other two reform laws they say they designed with UNDRIP in mind: the Indigenous Languages Act and the Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families.

The proposed UNDRIP act would require an as-yet undesignated cabinet minister to lead development of an implementation action plan, with annual reporting on progress made, not make UNDRIP itself a law.

The prime minister referred some questions to his cabinet ministers, who are slated to answer queries later tonight.

The general assembly is scheduled to wrap up Wednesday evening.