Moving past the Indian Act at the AFN’s Annual General Assembly

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The tone at this year’s annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations, with the theme of “Gaining Momentum,” expressed the improving relationship between Indigenous nations, the AFN and the new Liberal government elected last fall.

Held in Niagara Falls July 12-14, this transformation could be felt at the assembly. Gone was the frustration and bickering between the chiefs and the AFN executive, replaced instead by a genuine sense of hope and a dialogue centered on defining nation-to-nation relationships. How to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was another focus.

Philip Awashish, one the principal negotiators of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, made a presentation on “Moving Beyond the Indian Act,” the story of how the Eeyou of Eeyou Istchee went from “6000 Cree living in six crude communities without electricity, suitable water and sewage systems and adequate housing” to a nation composed of nine Cree bands that has “freed itself from the bonds and chains of the Indian Act for a period of 32 years.”

In his speech, Awashish recounted “the decision to kill and bury the Indian Act,” the “just-do-it approach” that enabled them to form the Grand Council of the Crees without approval from non-Aboriginal governments or funding.

“In a good way, Phillip Awashish schooled us on the Cree’s lived experience in burying the Indian Act and doing the hard work of nation building for the Eeyou of Eeyou Istchee,” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde following the speech.

One of Awashish’s closing remarks was: “I am sometimes asked, ‘Where are the youth in your story?’ I say, ‘We were the youth.’”

The youth of this year’s AGA were also leaders. They too felt the shift in the atmosphere.

“Cabinet ministers are here and engaging, the change is tangible,” said AFN Youth Council member Deanna Pashe. “We no longer have to go to them and beg them to listen, they’re coming to us and asking for our input. It’s now up to us to engage in the dialogue around climate change – we need to work together to create a holistic strategy that comes from the land.”

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During a roundtable discussion with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Pashe presented a prophecy that comes from both of her nations – the Dakota and Odawa. “If we don’t take care for the land, Mother Earth will clean itself.”

McKenna was receptive, a big change from her predecessor. “The previous minister would have thought I was crazy for presenting that prophecy,” she joked.

But it was the Elders who best illustrated this shift. ”I’ve been through the worst of it all,” said Robert Joseph, a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in BC. “I’ve been in the deepest, darkest holes you’ve ever seen, and there’s no victory in that.”

Chief Joseph is a residential school survivor, a recent recipient of the Indspire Lifetime Achievement Award. “Reconciliation means a million things,” he said. “Everyone is interested in this new way forward, but no one knows what that looks like yet, so we have to put it to paper.”

One thing is certain, however: “We have to start doing things differently.”

However, for some regional chiefs, this shift wasn’t anything to celebrate. “In light of the new government, and what I would call the new vision, we have to place the bar a little higher. The nation-to-nation relationship is now the floor. Ultimately, the goal we’re seeking are Indigenous institutions that are under our control,” said Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said that a new way forward comes with responsibility. “The nation-to-nation dialogue, and reconciliation are issues that we need get right the first time,” he argued. “As we gain momentum, we can’t forget there’s due diligence and processes that have to be done to get us there.”

There was a record 70 resolutions passed during the AGA. Many focused on nation building, the UN Declaration, reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships. Others reminded participants of the harsh inequities faced by Indigenous people in this country.

Though the AGA was about gaining momentum, the weeks that followed have seen backpedaling on the part of the federal government. It now appears the Trudeau government is trying to lower expectations in regard to adoption of the UN Declaration.

The hesitation demonstrates that progress comes as it always has – as a fight to have Indigenous rights recognized in Canadian law. But it’s equally important to remember that the Harper government wouldn’t have dreamed of offering the AFN a seat at the table. And that, if nothing else, is progress.

“Back in the day, we had all the same meetings, but we didn’t have any dialogue aimed at transforming our relationship. We’d do and say the same things, but would go back to hating each other afterwards. We need to make sure that, with what we’re doing now, we don’t go back to square one,” said Chief Joseph.

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National Chief Perry Bellegarde with Minister of Native Affairs Carolyn Bennett

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