The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he’s pleased with the progress being made by the federal government on reconciliation and improving quality of life for Indigenous Canadians, but the road ahead remains long and difficult.
Taking stock of what has proven to be a busy year in 2017, Perry Bellegarde told The West Block‘s Vassy Kapelos that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet are “moving in the right direction” with billions of dollars in government support for First Nations and a surprise move last summer to split the former Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in two.
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“It’s the executive branch of government that has to keep up with all those good vision statements about nation-to-nation and reconciliation,” Bellegarde noted.
“So all the deputy ministers, all the bureaucracies that have been there operating for many, many years, have to find new innovative and more effective and efficient ways to get these precious resources out to the communities in a more effective manner. So that’s where more work needs to be done.”
The departmental split announced in August formed two new bodies: a Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and a Department of Indigenous Services. Both are being headed up by experienced ministers, and the move was welcomed by the Assembly of First Nations.
But critics have suggested that the division could create needless competition for resources and more complexity for people trying to access government services.
Another weak spot has been the ongoing national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Bellegarde acknowledged. The inquiry saw repeated setbacks in 2017, losing several top staffers and a commissioner while being criticized for a failure to communicate with families and the public at large.
Bellegarde would not say if he personally agrees with a recent resolution passed by chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations that called on Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, to resign.
“They have a difficult job,” he said, adding that giving the inquiry more time to complete its mandate is certainly something he supports.
“You have to support the commissioners that are there … I think everyone should start focusing on the families first and if that can happen, I think there could be a greater comfort level around keeping and/or maintaining Marion Buller.”
Bellegarde added that First Nations and non-Aboriginal partners must “be careful of lateral violence, especially against each other.” As the inquiry moves ahead, he said, it’s important for everyone to also take a hard look at Canada’s policing services and how they have handled cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The inquiry’s mandate does not currently include opening old cases that may have been mishandled, although in their interim report last fall, the commissioners recommended setting up an independent body to do just that.
But Bellegarde isn’t so sure that the inquiry can’t expand its current mandate.
“I think that when we first started talking about the mandate and the authority of the commissioners, it was explained that you can push the envelope as much as you can, to include authorities and third-party entities such as police systems, so you can interpret that as being part of the terms of reference.”
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