National Chief Perry Bellegarde
Assembly of First Nations
Key Note Address
April 29, 2015
Chateau Laurier, Drawing Room
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
We are a couple of years away from Canada’s 150th anniversary. What change could come about between now and 2017 for First Nations, and for our relations with Canada, to make that occasion one First Nations can truly celebrate?
Our relationship with Canada has been challenging and the path forward more difficult than it needs to be, but there is always hope and opportunity for positive change.
When things look rough, hope and determination allow us to find that overlooked opportunity, that new way of looking at a situation, and ways to connect with activists, visionaries and leaders to make things happen for those most in need.
As First Nations people come out of the shadows of the residential school experience, we look forward with anticipation to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. First Nations know that we are at an historic turning point.
As a national leader, I see a path to hope and well-being for First Nations children and youth; and I see a path to positive change in relations with Canada.
The positive change we are driving towards is closing the gap between First Nations and the rest of Canada on all the important indices of social and economic development.
To win that change, First Nations are daily asserting our fundamental rights as peoples in our territories.
We will use the resources we have – our people, our languages and cultures, our values, our hard work and our lands and resources – to get what we need, to sustain ourselves and to prosper once again.
To be a part of that change, federal and provincial governments also have work to do.
Fiscal Equity and Closing the Gap
My first point focuses on the gap in well-being between First Nations and the rest of Canada, and what needs to be done about it.
The work that lies ahead for First Nations – the first order of government – and our younger Treaty partners, the federal and provincial governments requires a common understanding of our Treaty relationships.
The spirit of our Treaty relationships is one founded in the equality of peoples, not the domination of one people by another. That spirit is now reflected in international human rights law which expresses the connection between human rights, development, land, resources, security and equality between peoples.
We need to renew the spirit of equitable sharing and caring for one another that is the essence of the Treaty relationship. A first order of business is to create the fiscal mechanisms that will implement the sacred commitments Treaty partners undertook as peoples to share this land.
Fiscal transfers between federal and provincial governments, between regions and between First Nations and the Crown are part of the bond that holds us together in Canada, which binds us as peoples sharing the benefits and resources of this land and respecting one another.
At the moment, these systems do not result in equity for First Nations – far from it.
Unlike the fiscal base for services provided to people living off reserve, First Nation governments must manage many core services from health to infrastructure and to education and child welfare through discretionary program funding that has no legal protections.
Since 1996, Finance Canada has maintained an arbitrary 2% cap on spending increases for core services. This is oneâ€third of the legislated 6% increase that most Canadians will enjoy through the Canada Health Transfer for example. Since 2006, provincial governments have, on average, increased their investments in their citizens by 4 to 10% annually. The significant gap in development outcomes for First Nations relative to Canada overall is therefore not surprising.
The First Nations chapter in the Alternative Federal Budget captures the problem well: “Current transfers to First Nation governments are conditional, inflexible, inadequate, unpredictable and arbitrary.”
We are caught in a system that has First Nations administering our own poverty. And when our people flee this entrenched fiscal discrimination, to live in urban centres, the results of decades of fiscal and economic oppression are visible for all to see; and the responsibility of the federal government is downloaded to provincial governments.
The statistics reveal the results of decades of fiscal inequity:
- One in four children in First Nation communities live in poverty. That’s almost double the national average.
- First Nation children, on average, receive 22% less funding for child welfare services than other Canadian children.
- Suicide rates among First Nation youth are five to seven times higher than other young non-Aboriginal Canadians.
In the face of this reality, the 2015 Federal Budget is clearly another costly and missed opportunity to develop a comprehensive approach to closing the gap between First Nations and other communities in Canada.
In 2011, the Auditor General expressed profound disappointment that “a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted”.
The Auditor General went on to note the negative impacts of current unstable funding arrangements in these words: “The use of contribution agreements to fund core government services and ongoing program obligations (such as health care or education) leads to poor stability from yearâ€toâ€year for planning and program delivery; creates problems in timing of release of funds and its continuity; inhibits accountability to First Nation citizens; and leads to onerous reporting.”
There are two basic problems: first the status quo of chronic, conscious underfunding regardless of need or equity; and second, First Nations governments are funded like NGOs rather than governments that are part of the constitutional fabric of this country. We should be as much a part of intergovernmental transfers as provincial and territorial governments.
The result is a lack of certainty for planning and ongoing social crises fuelled by chronic underfunding. Inadequate, inappropriate funding arrangements have created systemic inequalities. The development gaps between Canada and First Nations will continue so long as the current fiscal arrangements continue. This is the essence of the equality rights case made before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal by the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. A decision from the Tribunal is expected any day.
Child welfare services is just one example of how progress on social and economic development for First Nations is blocked by the lack of fiscal capacity to allow proper long-term planning and implementation of those plans. Put at its simplest, the 2% cap represents a lock on First Nations poverty.
The international community is taking note of Canada’s structural inequalities in its relations and treatment of First Nations. Respected human rights bodies are drawing the connection between gross socio-economic disparities on the one hand and grave human rights violations on the other.
We saw this in March of this year, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women concluded that Canada is committing grave human rights violations in failing to address the systemic discrimination that maintains entrenched poverty; and these human rights failures are a key factor fueling the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to similar conclusions a few months prior.
For those who cannot relate to the fact that the rule of law absolutely requires the implementation of our rights in ways that closes the gap, then I urge you to consider the business case.
Maintaining First Nations in poverty is a situation where ‘cheap’ is expensive over the long term. If we close the education and employment gap between First Nations and other Canadians, First Nation workers would add $400 billion to Canada’s GDP by 2026 and Canada will save $115 billion in government expenditures.
So – what must we collectively do?
Establishing an equitable relationship of sharing requires the federal government and First Nations to work on fiscal arrangements that will ensure all First Nations communities have basic government services on par with other communities in Canada. This is a fundamental human right and obligation in a country as rich as Canada.
Good governance requires the delivery of essential government services such as infrastructure, education, health services, potable water, child welfare services, fire and policing services to ensure healthy and safe communities. First Nations communities do not have access to anything near the level and quality of government services that other Canadians enjoy.
Many Canadians may not realize that the federal government has the same responsibilities for the delivery of essential services to our communities that provincial governments have for theirs. Unfortunately, there is no overall federal strategy or plan to work with First Nations to close the gap in living conditions and well-being – as we saw again in Budget 2015.
In recent years, the United Nations Human Development Index has ranked Canada as high as 6th or 8th in the world for living standards, while First Nations would fall to a rank in the neighbourhood of 63 or lower. The government’s own community wellness index reveals that the comparative position of First Nations to the rest of Canada has barely changed in over 30 years.
Almost two decades of underfunding has created living standards that remain well below the average that Canadians enjoy. It is First Nations children who pay the highest price of this fiscal oppression from the day they are born; and that must stop.
A new fiscal arrangement must acknowledge that the current starting point for most of our communities is way behind other Canadians in terms of well-being and general living standards.
A new fiscal arrangement must include significant catch-up investments with escalators that have a relationship to the realities of population growth, geography and other relevant factors.
We must end the punitive and discriminatory underfunding of First Nations communities.
Treaty, Revenue Sharing and Resource Sovereignties
My second point is that renewing the Treaty relationship in a broad sense means advancing progress on resource benefit agreements and on revenue sharing arrangements between the Crown and First Nations in each Treaty and Aboriginal title Territory.
The first constitutional documents are the Treaties that began before Canada was created and which remain sacred commitments to share as equals.
To establish a country that includes First Nations as equal partners will require fiscal arrangements with provincial and territorial governments that reflect the spirit of the Treaty relationship – whether expressed in the older Treaties or the newer agreements on land and self-government.
Adhering to the spirit and intent of Treaty means that Canada cannot unilaterally renege on its commitments in modern “land claims” and self-government agreements. Lately it has been doing so in the most blatant way by imposing legislation that contravenes constitutionally protected rights to engage in joint decision-making through jointly designed and agreed-to mechanisms.
In the case of older Treaties, resolving issues of Treaty interpretation will require some common sense re-ordering of Crown attitudes, a recognition that the extinguishment clauses (written in English and typically sent after the verbal discussions and Treaty were made) are a fraud.
The very notion of extinguishment is a violation of our fundamental human rights as peoples. And let me clarify – there was no extinguishment of our land rights. No one would say – here take my land and give me next to nothing to live on.
International human rights law recognizes the fundamental rights of all Indigenous peoples to sustain ourselves and to use our resources to prosper in our own lands. Our right to govern ourselves as peoples and to benefit from the resources in our lands is a fundamental human right. It cannot be extinguished.
Many of you have probably noted the mounting number of victories by First Nations in the courts. These are all the more impressive because we have accomplished this in a system our governments don’t even control. That says a lot about us that is good; and a lot about Canada that is good.
There has been much discussion, but also fear, in response to our victories in cases like Haida Nation and Tsilhqot’in. I am going to speak to that fear today.
There is a recalibration of power that is taking place, a shift in power relations that is seeing First Nations restored to a place of equality as peoples with both pride and sovereignty.
That change is nothing to be afraid of. It is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to take the hand we have extended in peace for generations and join us in re-building our communities.
At the international level, there is guidance about what it means to work in peace with Indigenous peoples as equals, rather than as threats or as peoples to be dominated.
The United Nations has confirmed that under international human rights law First Nations as Indigenous peoples hold a right to self-determination that includes development rights in our traditional territories.
Article 32 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says, in part: “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.”
Our inherent rights as peoples have been confirmed by the UN – not created or granted – but rather recognized as existing human rights that are collective, pre-existing and non-extinguishable.
So what does all that mean?
The legal landscape tells us that Canada cannot have the development it seeks without us. Trying to contain this conversation within unilaterally designed federal and provincial regulatory frameworks does not work. It is also clear that Crown efforts to design policies and machinery of government to manage its consultation and consent obligations are insufficient. Governments are still trying to align themselves with the requirements of the 11 year old decision in Haida Nation. Policy and operational practices continue to be a good decade or more behind the jurisprudence because the Crown continues to try to manage us as clients rather than negotiate with us as peoples.
For the benefit of all Canadians, federal and provincial governments will have to recognize the reality of 2015 – that there is shared sovereignty in this land – shared between First Nations and federal and provincial governments. Shared sovereignty, shared resource benefits, shared resource revenues.
We are not a third order of government or a municipal form of government. We are the first sovereign peoples of this land and we continue to be the first holders of this land.
Shared sovereignty means we will no longer tolerate being treated as “claimants” in our own lands. What we hold is what the Creator gave us. We do not hold “grievances”, we hold this land.
The 638 communities and the more than 50 nations encompassed by the Assembly of First Nations have seen the worst and are ready and primed to roll back the tired old ways of thinking.
We are resuming control. We are re-asserting jurisdiction over our lands and resources.
We are ready for meaningful consultation with the Crown on major policies and legislation. The obligation of the Crown to consult with First Nations on major pieces of legislation affecting our rights as peoples was recently confirmed by the Coutoreille (Mikisew Cree First Nation) decision of the Federal Court. Our environmental values and our notions of how to balance development and environmental protection and sustainability are part of this country and it is time we were listened to.
We are ready to do business with the business sector and we are ready to work with federal and provincial governments at all ministerial level tables – energy tables, economic development tables and education tables.
Canada needs to get this right – First Nations need to get this right! First Nations are no longer willing to sit on the side of the road watching rocks, minerals, forests, and other natural resources taken from our territories while our communities struggle. Ensuring all opportunities and benefits of resource development are fully shared with First Nations is a theme whose time has come.
Canada has suffered an economic depression a few times in its history – measures were taken to help alleviate the pressures of those times. Most recently we saw programs to promote economic stimulus. First Nations have been in a long-term economic depression that has left most of our communities in a state of poverty. The foot print it has left in our communities is unmistakable – the gap is felt by our very young to our elderly.
Canada, provinces, territories, and First Nations need to come together to build a more inclusive Canada and a strong and honourable future for this country. To be successful, we need to work together on systems, policy, and new agreements, and to consider how revenues are shared, and how resources are developed.
There is also important work to do to build capacity and educate our young people. This brings me to my third point.
Education, First Nations Development and Hope
What must First Nations do to advance our development agendas – at the national level and in each Treaty and title territory?
We must instill hope in our children and youth that things can and will change; that we can make change happen through collective and individual action; and by being who we are.
We are the entrepreneurs, the teachers, the environmental and resource managers who care for the land, the Elders and spiritual advisors, the activists, the hunters, the medicine people.
The resurgence of First Nations culture and political activism is as high as it has ever been since we first experienced colonialism.
A critical part of this change is being brought about through the education of our children and our youth, by First Nation teachers.
Our Treaty rights and our right to self-determination include the right to develop, manage and maintain our own education systems. “First Nations Control of First Nations Education” remains the foundational principle supporting First Nation Education and it is the litmus test by which we assess any education proposal.
Since the 2% cap on education funding was first implemented in 1996, it has created an historical funding shortfall totaling more than $3 billion for First Nations across Canada.
This inequity is holding us back and must be addressed by a new fiscal framework accompanied by standards and accountability – but not with management or oversight by the Department of “Aboriginal” Affairs.
The fact that a political agreement to address education reform fell apart does not mean that Canada and First Nations should stop trying.
We must re-engage; and there must be a process that recognizes and supports regional and local diversity and that respects our Treaty rights and our inherent rights as peoples.
Over the past six months or so, the National Indian Education Council (NIEC) and the AFN Chiefs Committee on Education (CCOE) developed a First Nation Education Work Plan.
In December 2014, Chiefs-in-Assembly approved, for further discussion and development, a framework for a federal act for funding First Nation Education and for advocacy on First Nations education issues.
The draft Framework is restricted to defining what the Federal responsibilities are in relation to funding First Nation Education.
First Nations understand the need for education reform and that standards and accountability mechanisms are tied to funding. First Nations are doing this work. What First Nations won’t accept is for crucial elements to be dictated by a federal department with no First Nations education expertise.
Where adequate resources have been provided to First Nations, great work has been done in places like Kettle and Stony Point First Nation as well as the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey in Nova Scotia. First Nations students have proven that if they are given equal resourcing and the quality of education provided other students in Canada they can achieve at the same or even exceed provincial rates.
While success isn’t only about money, funding is absolutely crucial for First Nation Schools to offer a quality education that values our cultures and languages. One only needs to look at the funding level for provincial French minority language schools which receive more on average than their English counterparts to see what appropriate funding levels are required when a language is under threat. The vital role of First Nations culture and language in the curriculum is evident in the success stories in First Nation education such as that of Akwesasne.
When discussing education and the need for a broader understanding of First Nation issues we need to work with provinces and territories to ensure curriculum includes First Nation culture and history. I would like to acknowledge those jurisdictions that have already embarked on this very important work. In partnership with Manitoba, First Nations have developed an education toolkit that is being aligned with Manitoba curriculum. The roll-out is planned for the fall.
As National Chief, one of my key priorities is to close the gap in well-being and living conditions that exists between First Nations and the majority of Canada. It is obvious that without significant investments in First Nation education and other critical supports such as housing, potable water and viable effective child protection programs, closing the living standards and wellness gap will be elusive.
Fiscal funding inequities are a cap on First Nations’ potential; and therefore on Canada’s potential.
When defining economic development objectives on reserve, or off, meeting the education needs of First Nations children and youth must be included in that discussion. Without educated citizens and an educated work force, our communities will continue to struggle to realize their economic development objectives.
The path to change, to healthy, vibrant First Nations communities lies in holding up our First Nations youth. Instilling hope in their futures lies in rebuilding within our own communities. That is the responsibility of First Nations leadership.
Rebuilding the relationship between First Nations and Canada, including fiscal relations, is a joint responsibility.
Our young people are eager and waiting, our Elders and teachers are ready to lead, our entrepreneurs and our land managers are ready to work.
We reach out our hands to our Treaty partner and say – let’s get to work and build a stronger Canada for all of us!
 The First Nations chapter of the Alternative Federal Budget (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) was developed with the support of the Assembly of First Nations. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/projects/alternative-federal-budget
 June 2011 Status Report of the Auditor General of Canada, http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_201106_00_e_35368.html
 Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, The Community Well-Being Index: Report on Trends in First Nations Communities, 1981-2011 (April 2015) https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1345816651029/1345816742083 (“The CWB gap between First Nations and non-Aboriginal communities is substantial. In 2011, the average CWB score for First Nations communities was 20 points lower than the average score for non-Aboriginal communities. This gap is the same size as it was in 1981.”)