Assembly of First Nations meets with premiers today, ending boycott

The Assembly of First Nations will attend a meeting of Indigenous leaders and premiers Tuesday, ending a boycott it launched in 2017.

Chief Bruce Morin of Big River First Nation will co-host the half-day of talks with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in Big River First Nation. Moe also is hosting his provincial and territorial counterparts in Saskatoon for the annual Council of the Federation summer meeting Wednesday and Thursday.

This year’s meeting marks the first time since 2016 that AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde has accepted the council’s invitation to meet with premiers. This year’s meeting is expected to touch on economic development and services for Indigenous children and families.

“We are seeing more and more the proof that meaningful inclusion and collaboration with First Nations is constructive and productive and leads to better decisions and better results for our people and all of Canada,” said Bellegarde in a press release issued Monday.

“This is the only way to ensure our rights, title and jurisdiction are respected, and that decisions actually have positive impacts on the ground.”

In July 2017, leaders of the AFN, the Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami collectively chose to reject meeting invitations from the Council of the Federation, the organization that represents Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial premiers.

Change of heart

The Indigenous groups said they would rejoin the meetings if they were invited to the table for the entire duration of the talks. Representatives of national Indigenous organizations are only invited to the annual premiers meetings to discuss Indigenous issues.

Explaining its change of heart, the AFN cited the recent passage of C-92, a new law allowing Indigenous groups to secure control of child and family services in their communities. The legislation was developed with input from First Nations.

The Métis National Council, meanwhile, is continuing the boycott; it also declined an invitation to last month’s western premiers’ conference in Edmonton.

In a letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, which also was sent to the other provincial and territorial leaders, MNC President Clément Chartier said the group “would not be accepting meeting invitations from the Council of the Federation until such time that it limits its invitations to the three National Representatives of Indigenous Nations and Peoples” — the MNC, the AFN and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

“Premier Moe is fully aware of this position,” wrote Chartier.

A year ago, when those three organizations declined the Council of the Federation’s invitation to meet, they said they objected in part to being lumped in with organizations that represent Indigenous people but are not recognized representatives of sovereign nations.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed also will be skipping Tuesday’s meeting — but an organization representative blamed that on a “scheduling” issue.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents Indigenous people living off-reserve, says its national Chief Robert Bertrand will attend the Big River meeting. So will National Women’s Aboriginal Congress interim president Gail Paul.

CAP and NWAC were the only national Indigenous groups to accept invitations to meet with the premiers during last year’s retreat. That meeting in Bouctouche, New Brunswick coincided with Perry Bellegarde’s re-election campaign as national chief, as well as the general assembly of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska.

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, a Saskatchewan-based First Nations organization, is also attending the meeting with premiers. He said it’s important to keep lines of communication open with the provinces.

“Much the way our Premier Scott Moe butts heads with (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau, there’s times where we at the FSIN butt heads with our provincial government,” he said. “But that shouldn’t stop the governments and FSIN and chiefs and councils from creating and forming these partnerships, to at least improve some of the quality of life for our First Nations people.”

Some premiers not attending

Several of Canada’s 13 premiers will skip Tuesday’s meeting at Big River First Nation, which is about two and a half hours northeast of Saskatoon — not far from the rural community where Moe was raised.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford will not be making the trip; instead, he’ll be represented by his Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford. Ford’s office said the premier will meet with Indigenous leaders informally at a reception later in the day.

Premier Dwight Ball of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil will be absent due to scheduling and travel complications.

The premiers gather in Saskatoon for two days of talks starting Wednesday — the last premiers’ conference before the fall federal election. The meeting’s agenda includes talks on interprovincial trade, health care, climate policy, immigration and labour.

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