Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will continue to stand for Indigenous treaty rights but will not pick a fight with provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan that are advancing controversial sovereignty laws.
The prime minister heard from chiefs and delegates at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) annual conference in Ottawa Thursday, where he was immediately pressed on how to square his promises of reconciliation with his hands-off approach to Alberta’s Bill 1 and Saskatchewan’s Bill 88, which the AFN and Treaty Chiefs say infringe on their rights and must be revoked.
“We are extremely concerned about what the sovereignty act in Alberta and Bill 88 in Saskatchewan represent in terms of challenges to treaty rights that are fundamental in Canada and need to be respected,” Trudeau said.
“As we’ve seen, duly elected provincial governments can move forward on laws that we as a federal government disagree with. And the remedy for that is through the court system.”
Trudeau added the federal government will continue to support court challenges to provincial laws that Ottawa believes are not in the national interest, as it has with lawsuits against Quebec’s secularism law Bill 21.
His response was different from the tone he struck earlier in the day, when he said the federal government is going to work as constructively as possible with Alberta.
On Wednesday, Treaty 6, 7 and the AFN put forward an emergency resolution at the Special Chiefs Assembly to reject the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act and the Saskatchewan First Act.
The Alberta bill passed late Wednesday night along party lines, giving the government the power to challenge federal laws that are deemed harmful to the province’s interests. The bill was amended to remove a provision that gave cabinet the authority to rewrite laws without legislative approval.
The Opposition New Democrats have described the bill as “a hot mess express” and said the final bill as passed is still too ambiguous when defining federal harm.
The Saskatchewan First Act, which would give the province independent powers over its natural resources, passed second reading in late November and is currently before committee before it returns to the assembly for final passage.
Indigenous leaders in those provinces say First Nations were not consulted and that the bills will set a dangerous precedent for other governments across Canada to ignore treaty rights.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who made the sovereignty act a centerpiece of her leadership campaign, has promised to arrange meetings with chiefs from Treaties 6, 7 and 8 who have expressed concerns.
Trudeau said his government is focused on working with provinces and territories on issues that matter most to First Nations, including housing, jobs, fighting climate change and public safety.
“We will continue to work together with you, but we will not engage in the kind of political fight that the government of Alberta is looking for,” he said.
The conference gave First Nations leaders the opportunity to confront Trudeau on a host of issues, including the ongoing path toward justice for residential school survivors and the continued impacts of Canada’s colonial past.
Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin, a chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation who led a hunger strike after a state of emergency was declared over the reserve’s water supply in 2019, bemoaned the slow progress of government assistance for struggling communities.
“Why do we have to come to these forums just to meet the basic needs for our people?” she asked. “I don’t want to come back to another forum and say this over again.”
Trudeau acknowledged there are “far too many” communities still struggling, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, but promised to continue working to end boil water advisories and help address other basic services. He emphasized the need to work collaboratively with First Nations in order to fully meet their needs.
“I absolutely agree it’s taking too long, but we have to get it right and that takes years,” he said. “But we have to do it now because now is when the kids need it.”
Trudeau was also asked once again to release all records held by the government and the Catholic Church related to the residential school system, which has dragged on for nearly a year since the government’s most recent promise to do so.
The prime minister responded that Ottawa is “trying” to release everything it can find, but noted privacy issues for some of the documents while also “pressing” the Church and other groups for items they hold.
He did not provide a timeline for when those processes will resolve.