AFN signs memorandum of understanding with Trudeau government

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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Prime Minister Trudeau signed a memorandum of understanding that sets out an ongoing engagement to ensure progress on issues facing the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

More specifically, it calls for three annual meetings to be held between Canada and the AFN Executive Committee, one of which will be chaired by Trudeau himself. Topics covered in the first meeting of this AFN-Canada working group range from “policing and community safety” to the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“This commitment to meet will help ensure that the government’s priorities are consistent with First Nations priorities,” Bellegarde said in a statement. “First Nations will set direction for these meetings and the AFN will ensure we are making progress on an agenda as determined by First Nations. This is about action and results for First Nations, which will benefit all Canadians.”

Other topics in the MOU include: implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action; development of an Indigenous Language Act to support the revitalization and strengthening of languages; supporting the nation-to-nation relationship; and creating dialogue around closing the socio-economic gap.

But for lawyer and Indigenous rights activist Pam Palmater, what’s not on the agenda is cause for concern. “It’s really stunning in that it’s not addressing things like missing and murdered Indigenous women, First Nations kids in care, or the exclusion of Indigenous women from the Indian Act,” said Palmater in an interview with APTN. “To me it’s just the old boys’ club at it again.”

And Palmater wasn’t alone. Following the announcement on June 12, critics took to Twitter and other social media platforms to voice their concerns, among them that the AFN is a policy and lobbying organization and not a First Nations signatory, and the possibility of backroom deals. However, one pro-MOU anonymous source told the Nation that, “Some would find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of progress.”

“There’s a very large diversity of Indigenous peoples, and a very large diversity of opinions as well,” AFN Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard told the Nation. “I certainly respect the opinion of others but, for me, I rely on the wisdom of my chiefs.”


For Picard, the MOU represents an important opportunity, but nothing is written in stone.

“If we find the process doesn’t provide for what we’re hoping to achieve, we will get out of it,” he said.

If nothing else, it’s a symbolic commitment. The last time a sitting prime minister agreed to meet with a delegation of First Nations chiefs was in 2013 during the Idle No More movement. The last time First Nations leadership had an official, ongoing structural link to a prime minister was back in the 1970s when the National Indian Brotherhood established a joint NIB-Canada Cabinet Committee with the Pierre Trudeau government.

“We have to look at things in the context of the day and understand that we have a federal government that has demonstrated it wants to engage with First Nations leadership,” said Picard. “The MOU provides resources that the AFN was denied during the Harper years.”

As always, the onus will be on First Nations leadership to push for real structural change and ensure this isn’t just keeping up appearances for the Trudeau Liberals. With just two years left in Trudeau’s mandate, questions over whether these meetings will lead to concrete results are legitimate.

“One thing we don’t have control over is the political climate at large. This government has less than two years before it starts campaigning,” said Picard. “But it gives our region a purpose to mobilize and invest time and energy into the process in the hopes that it will trigger some desperately needed changes in our communities.

“Ultimately, with three meetings a year, I don’t need to be at every one. I can offer my seat to any chief in the region who needs to have their say with the prime minister,” said Picard. “It gives all the regions the opportunity to have their voice heard on issues relevant to their particular situation.”

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