To begin, I would like to recognize the Haundenosanee, on whose traditional territory we are gathering.
And I would like to acknowledge our friends in the west and in the north, where wildfires have affected hundreds of communities and disrupted thousands of lives. In the last few days I’ve spoken with First Nations leaders from communities affected by the fires and I’ve been reminded that even though we do step up in responding to tough circumstances, we need to make sure that as a country, we’re better prepared to deal with challenges like wildfires, whenever and wherever they strike.
Elders, veterans, youth, National Chief Bellegarde, members of the AFN executive and Chiefs-in-Assembly: thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this AGA. And let me just say I’m looking forward to joining you again next year, whatever my job title may be.
In my time as Liberal Leader I’ve had the chance to meet with, and get to know, many of you in this room. And I know that you’ve met many members of my team, too.
Carolyn Bennett, our critic for Aboriginal Affairs. The great team members of the Liberal Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission.
Of course, you know Jody Wilson-Raybould, recently your colleague as Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, and now ours as Vancouver Granville’s Liberal candidate.
Jody is just one of a dozen Indigenous Liberal candidates – a group of experienced leaders we’re so fortunate to have as part of our team.
I am honoured by your invitation and very grateful for the chance to be with you at this important time when, as a country, we engage in the ongoing and important work of reconciliation.
Last month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its summary report and findings. Some of us here today were last together at Rideau Hall, at the ceremony to mark the end of the Commission’s seven years of hard work helping our country understand the truth about that dark chapter of our history.
It’s an event I will never forget. It was an experience that will remain with me – not just in my heart, but in my actions as we move forward, together.
That day, I heard stories that touched me and other caring Canadians very deeply.
Stories I will tell to my own children in time, because it’s important that they know that the things we believe about ourselves as Canadians – that we’re generous, that we treat others with respect and fairness – those things have not always been true.
I’ll tell them about the survivors I met that day. To the survivors here today: know that your stories will be shared. I’ll tell them why there were two empty chairs in that room.
As any parent or teacher can tell you, the sense of social justice often beats strongest in young hearts. I know that my children – and your children – will want to know what we’re collectively going to do about it. How we can find our way to reconciliation, now that the truth is starting to be known.
This is an especially important conversation to have as we prepare to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. We need to recognize that ours was a nation forged without the meaningful participation of Aboriginal Peoples.
That this unlikely country has endured for a century and a half is cause for celebration. But at the same time, this commemoration stands as a reminder that much work remains. One hundred fifty years on, we’ve yet to complete the unfinished business of Confederation.
Which brings me to the two key themes I’d like to address today – two interrelated challenges that we must get right if we are to all make progress on the essential work of nation-building, and rebuilding.
First, the urgent need for a renewed relationship between the federal government and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. One built on trust, recognition and respect for rights, and a commitment that the status quo must end. And second, the importance of fairness and equality of opportunity for Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.
On the subject of relationship. As I said, we’re talking about a century and a half of formal relations, and viewed with a longer lens, centuries more before that. A relationship symbolized by treaties, and in this part of the country, by the two-row wampum.
It would be unfair – and historically inaccurate – to blame any one government for the failed relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal Peoples. That failure is shared by generations of political leaders at all levels.
But I think it is fair to ask whether the approach of the current government is actually working to help mend damaged relationships, restore broken trust, and support First Nations communities in achieving their full potential.
I know that’s a task my immediate Liberal predecessors took to heart. Just over a decade ago, the last Liberal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin initiated a jointly led federal-provincial-Aboriginal process to set priorities and develop solutions for the challenges faced by Aboriginal communities.
The result of that dialogue was the Kelowna Accord.
At the core of the Kelowna Accord was a nation-to-nation collaborative plan that sought to close the unacceptable inequality gap that exists in too many of your communities. It sought to ensure those you represent have access to basic rights – things like safe housing and clean drinking water. It was a plan to boost education levels, to recognize your governance rights as full partners in the federation, and create sustainable economic growth in your communities.
But then the opposition parties joined together to defeat Mr. Martin’s government. Harper came to power, and Kelowna, and all it represented, was gone.
In the last 10 years, whatever meaningful relationship-building that had been underway has given way to political theatre and the illusion of progress.
Harper’s legacy includes government-led legislation that demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding of what is needed to move beyond both the Indian Act and the paternalistic “Ottawa knows best” approach to governance.
Things like the innocuously named Safe Drinking Water on First Nations Act, the Matrimonial Property Act, or the First Nations Financial Transparency Act might sound like good initiatives. But take a closer look and it’s clear that they’re just the latest examples of federal interference – of the government dictating terms rather than working in partnership to support First Nations governance.
Mr. Harper’s legacy might have included finally closing the inexcusable funding gap, and gap in learning outcomes, for First Nations students – but when Chiefs-in-Assembly refused to accept a fundamentally flawed education bill, his government used it as an excuse to abandon the process entirely. More than happy, I’m sure, to reassign the money, as has so often been the case with this government.
His legacy includes creating false hope with respect to resolving land claims and implementing treaty rights.
His legacy includes dismissing calls for a public inquiry into the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girls.
Most recently, his legacy includes silence with respect to the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
That is Mr. Harper’s legacy.
The good news is that this October, voters have an opportunity to choose a different government. A better government.
One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation, central to what Canada is as a nation. That our futures are inextricably intertwined. That the Crown must always act honourably and in good faith when dealing with Aboriginal Peoples.
When I say that we must complete the unfinished work of Confederation, I mean that Canada needs a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Aboriginal communities.
A relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. One that is rooted in the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One that is guided by the spirit and intent of the original Treaty relationship, and one that respects the decisions of our courts. One that takes us beyond our formal agreements and speaks to how we ought to treat each other – person to person and spirit to spirit. One that remembers that when we conduct ourselves with dignity, we manifest our respect for the Creator, and for Creation.
And we don’t need this kind of renewed relationship only because it’s the right thing to do – though it most assuredly is the right thing to do. A renewed relationship will also set us on the path to the responsible economic growth we all need and the shared future prosperity we all deserve.
Our election platform will spell out our commitments in greater detail, but I can share with you three of the ways in which we hope to get that renewal started.
First, as a matter of national priority, we will develop a Federal Reconciliation Framework, created in full partnership with Aboriginal Peoples.
Reconciliation starts with recognizing and respecting Aboriginal title and rights, including Treaty rights. A Liberal government will do just that. Not only in accordance with Constitutional obligations, but also with those enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Something the current government has steadfastly refused to do.
To this end, we will conduct a full review of the legislation unilaterally imposed on Aboriginal Peoples by Stephen Harper’s government, through the lens of section 35 of the Constitution. Where measures are found to be in conflict with Aboriginal rights, where they are inconsistent with the principles of good governance, or where they simply make no public policy sense, we will rescind them.
Bill C-51 is a perfect example. I know it’s a piece of legislation that is of concern to many Aboriginal Peoples – and it concerns Liberals, too.
Liberals have always understood the need to balance our security with protection of our rights and freedoms. While we support the security measures in this bill, we are committed to repairing and repealing the sections that are cause for concern.
Simply put, Indigenous Peoples standing up for their rights are not terrorists, and should never be branded as such.
This Reconciliation Framework will also include mechanisms to resolve grievances associated with existing historical treaties and modern land-claims agreements. The current process simply does not work. We will work with First Nations to re-design how Canada negotiates and fully implements modern treaties.
In some cases, the work toward reconciliation is already underway, but efforts are hindered by narrow federal mandates and lack of action. We will work with First Nations to achieve fair and just resolutions. That includes addressing the issue of governance. The Reconciliation Framework will include mechanisms to advance and strengthen self-government.
I want you to know that I appreciate how challenging this work can be. The injustices that took place over centuries cannot be undone immediately, no matter how good our intentions. But I also understand how critically important it is for First Nations to be full partners at those tables where shared decisions about the future our country are made, from resource development to environmental stewardship.
Second, as part of a renewed relationship between the federal government and First Nations, we will do more to make sure that the voices of your Nations are heard in Ottawa.
As you know, Harper’s changes to the Elections Act make it harder for Indigenous Peoples to exercise their right to vote. We will repeal those changes.
And most importantly, we want to hear directly from you. If I am the Prime Minister after the next election, I will go to meet with First Nations leaders each and every year of my government’s mandate. And in our party, Liberal Members of Parliament will always to be strong voices for their communities. Ottawa needs to hear from you far more than you need to hear from Ottawa.
And third, to support the work of reconciliation and continue the necessary process of truth telling and healing, we will work with you to enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The second theme I want to speak about today is the urgent need to expand fairness and equality of opportunity in Aboriginal communities. Without this, all of the commitments I have spoken of for repairing and renewing the relationship will prove fruitless.
Restoring the idea of fairness is at the heart of the Liberal plan for our country.
Sadly, far too many First Nations, Métis Nation, and Inuit have been systematically sidelined and denied access to the basic necessities that most Canadians take for granted, the building blocks for fairness and opportunity.
As National Chief Bellegarde is right to point out, the current gap between Canadians and Aboriginal Peoples is wide – and worrisome. A United Nations index that measures living conditions places Canada 8th in the world – but when those same indicators are applied to Aboriginal communities, they come in 63rd on the list.
History has shown that a top-down approach gets us nowhere when it comes to closing that gap. What we need is a collaborative approach, similar to the one that resulted in the Kelowna Accord. A process that respects the experiences of Aboriginal Peoples and gives you a real say in setting priorities and developing solutions to the challenges their communities face every day.
That last part bears repeating: if the federal government sets priorities and devises solutions without the input of Aboriginal communities, those solutions will fail.
Here’s what a Liberal government will do differently.
We will immediately re-engage in the renewed, respectful, and inclusive Nation-to-Nation process I spoke of earlier. Our shared priority will be to advance progress on the issues you have prioritized – issues like housing, infrastructure, health and mental health care, community safety and policing, child welfare, and education.
And we will ensure that the Kelowna Accord – and the spirit of reconciliation that drove it – is embraced, and its objectives implemented in a manner that meets today’s challenges. We will make up for 10 long, lost years.
As a part of this, we will immediately lift the two percent cap on funding for First Nations programs. That limit – in place for nearly 20 years – has not kept up with the demographic realities of your communities or the actual costs of program delivery.
Simply put, none of our shared goals can be achieved under the status quo. We need a new fiscal relationship that provides your communities with sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding. Increasing First Nations’ own source revenues, whether through revenue sharing or other mechanisms, is a priority. Together, we can build this new fiscal relationship for the benefit of Aboriginal Peoples and all Canadians.
When it comes to deciding where investments should be made, we will look to First Nations’ leadership for guidance. There are three specific funding priorities that come to mind, however.
The first is education. This is one funding area where we know we can’t afford to wait. We will make significant new investments in First Nations education – beyond those promised but not delivered by Mr. Harper last year. We will make those investments immediately, to help close the chronic funding gap.
The futures of First Nations children are not just your future, but also the future of Canada. First Nations communities, educators, and students should not have to wait one more day for the critical resources they need.
We still need to work to ensure that First Nations have control over First Nations education. Education and education reforms are a priority for your Assembly and it’s a priority we share. But unlike Mr. Harper, we believe that education reforms must be First Nations-led. We will never impose solutions from the top down.
A second priority is ensuring that all First Nations receive equitable funding for child and family services on reserves.
It is unconscionable that your Assembly and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society had to turn to the Canadian Human Rights Commission to ensure equality of service and justice. It is shameful that the important advocacy work of leaders like Cindy Blackstock is met with suspicion and retaliation, rather than appreciation and thanks.
And finally, we will also provide substantial new funding to support your ability to promote, preserve, and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures. For me, this is essential. A language is an expression of ways of thinking and cultural understanding. Knowledge of one’s language is directly related to better physical, mental, and spiritual health. We know from experience the vital role that language revitalization plays in building strong communities, healing, education, development, strong families, and a reconnection to identity. Simply put, a healthy language means healthy individuals, and healthy communities.
Again, these are just some of the ways in which a more respectful and productive relationship can be established between Ottawa and First Nations, and some of the outcomes we hope to achieve through that collective hard work.
I do want to address one additional issue before I wrap up, and that’s the importance of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Victims’ families, Aboriginal leaders, all the Premiers, non-governmental organizations, the international community, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have all concluded that a national public inquiry is needed. Only Harper and his Conservative government disagree.
But what else could we expect from a leader who refuses to admit that the disappearance and death of nearly 1,200 Indigenous women and girls is an ongoing national tragedy that must be brought to an end.
A Liberal government, in contrast, will immediately launch an inquiry. The process by which it is established will be fully inclusive, designed to find justice for the victims and healing for their families.
An inquiry would seek to recommend concrete actions that governments, law enforcement, and others can take to solve these crimes and prevent future ones. Not by ignoring uncomfortable truths, but by understanding and taking action to deal with the root causes of this national tragedy.
Seven years ago, Mr. Harper said that the time had come to “(forge) a new relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together.”
Those are powerful words. But as Justice Sinclair reminded us, words are not enough.
Words will never be enough so long as the government lacks the political will to be a true and honest partner. Even a word like “fairness” – so central to our identity as Canadians – holds no weight unless it is backed up by meaningful, measurable action.
In closing, let me say this: the Liberal party has a plan that will bring about real change, and I have a great team to help get us there.
I commit to you that a Liberal government will work with you to build a renewed relationship based on trust, respect, and mutual understanding, in the spirit and intent of the original treaties.
I want to go back to that day at Rideau Hall during the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was struck with profound hope that day – a hope that despite years of wasted time, and of missed opportunities, that Harper would seize the moment and chart a new course. To advance real reconciliation. To close the unacceptable gap in the quality of life, in partnership with your leadership and your communities.
It is clear now that hope was misplaced.
But I have not and will not lose sight of that goal.
I believe that the quality of life gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples can be closed.
I believe that if we want a Canada we can all be truly proud of, that gap must be closed.
I believe that a respectful, cooperative partnership is not only possible – it is a sacred responsibility inherited from past generations and entrusted to us by future ones.
I believe that reconciliation is not an Aboriginal issue; it is a Canadian issue. And I believe it is time that we came together to build that better future for all our communities and all our children.
I look forward to sharing that journey in partnership with you.