MMIWG inquiry criticism overshadows education, finance agreements at AFN gathering

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Despite a rocky start, chiefs at the annual Assembly of First Nations winter gathering held in Ottawa December 5-7 agreed to move forward on “historic” deals on finance and education with Canada.

“We’ve made gains, but challenges remain,” AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told 1200 delegates, warning that much work still needed to be done on education, housing, water and language preservation.

Among the gains, he cited the government’s recent decision to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). He also lauded the federal government’s pledge to increase First Nations funding to $11.8 billion by 2021.

But the good news was dimmed by harsh criticism of Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ inquiry.

Addressing the assembly, Buller said some of the criticism was valid, but argued that much of the good work has been “lost in translation.” She listed off a number of accomplishments as she requested support for a two-year extension to the inquiry.

Buller’s speech didn’t appear to appease the chiefs and family members in attendance. Many excoriated her while family members accused her of disrespecting them.

The most stinging criticism came from Sheila North Wilson, the Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

“You’re probably a brilliant human being, but I tell you, you are not a brilliant commissioner for this inquiry,” North Wilson said to applause. “I’m actually repulsed you’re here.”

Delegates adopted a motion to support the two-year extension for the inquiry, but added an amendment calling for Buller to step down. The vote passed 48-15.

Meanwhile, the education deal also faced its share of critics. In negotiation since January, the proposal would see a $665 million fund currently reserved for supporting school boards across Canada opened to all First Nations. The ultimate goal is to increase funding for all First Nations through self-government agreements on education.

AFN and government estimates show that the average funding per-student would rise by 30%, bringing the average funding up to $23,000 per student. This would be higher in more remote and northern community. No community would see a decrease in funding.

A number of speakers forcefully opposed the bill; some suggesting the plan would jeopardize future education funding increases, while others said it didn’t go far enough. In the end, delegates gave the AFN a green light to continue negotiations to make the plan official government policy.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott addressed the chiefs regarding funding initiatives being discussed with the AFN.

She pledged millions of dollars towards First Nations child welfare, which she called a “humanitarian crisis,” noting that a recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling said that more had to be done on this issue by Canada. She promised more money in the 2018 budget.

Philpott said she has learned how many communities have issues with the current financial relationship between the federal government and band councils. She said the government is prepared to move ahead with 10-year block grants to communities, starting in 2019 with “qualified” First Nations.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould emphasized the new path that the federal government was embarking on in implementing the UNDRIP and working to recognize self-government and the self-determination of First Nations.

“This has never been attempted before, it represents a sharp break with the past,” she said. “Self-determination means Indigenous Peoples setting their own priorities, refining and defining their vision of government and working to ensure the capacity to make it a reality. No crown or government can lead this work for you.”

After both ministers left, a number of chiefs spoke out, decrying the fact that the chiefs heard from the ministers, but the ministers didn’t have time to hear from the chiefs.

Organizers seem to have received the message. From then on, all invited guests made sure to include time for questions and comments from the chiefs.

Also on the table was the federal plan to legalize cannabis. Many chiefs asked the government to delay the implementation date by a year, arguing they weren’t prepared.

However, chiefs were overwhelmingly agreed that they alone should have the jurisdiction over whether to allow its sales in their communities.

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