Treaty 6 chiefs say they have concluded that Premier Danielle Smith neither respects nor understands treaty rights and Indigenous history after hearing comments she made in the Alberta legislature Tuesday.
Smith compared the treatment of Alberta by the federal government to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people under the Indian Act — a comment that has left Indigenous leaders and others feeling frustrated and angry.
“This is all about making sure Ottawa stays out of our jurisdiction,” Smith said as she addressed the legislative assembly. “The way I’ve described it to the chiefs that I’ve spoken with is that they have fought a battle over the last number of years to get sovereignty respected and to extract themselves from the paternalistic Indian Act.
“We get treated the exact same way from Ottawa. They interfere in our jurisdiction all the time and we look forward to pushing back and being treated exactly like Quebec.”
After facing backlash for the comments, Smith told the house on Wednesday that she is sorry if she did not make her point clearly.
“If my comments were misconstrued, I absolutely apologize for it because my intention was to demonstrate that we have a common problem with Ottawa,” she said.
“Ottawa, I think, unfortunately, treats First Nations with disrespect and they also treat provinces with disrespect.”
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Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation issued a statement to Global News on Wednesday in response to Smith’s comments.
“We know this not to be true,” he said. “I want Premier Smith to focus on our concerns about the sovereignty act, rather than try to use our people in her fight against Ottawa.”
“It was clear from our discussions that Premier Smith does not understand treaty or our inherent rights, nor does she respect them,” read a statement issued by Treaty 6 chiefs on Tuesday.
It just so happened that the provincial government had a meeting with treaty chiefs scheduled for the day after Smith made her comments. The meeting was scheduled before she became premier and was not one intended to be a sit-down about her sovereignty act.
Last week, the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act was passed in the legislature. The legislation was introduced by Smith as a way for her government to push back whenever it believes the federal government has overreached into provincial jurisdiction and does something it believes harms Alberta’s interest.
First Nations chiefs have criticized the premier for not consulting with them before passing the legislation.
Following Wednesday’s meeting, the chiefs wrote in a statement that the meeting did not constitute a proper consultation with their nations on matters of mutual concern.
They said the invitation during the throne speech at the start of the legislative assembly was not an “inclusive approach” to consulting with the Indigenous community over the sovereignty act. They also called Smith out for not understanding how to respectfully approach Indigenous leaders for such a conversation or on how to work with them.
The chiefs have asked the province to “withdraw and reconsider any legislation that pretends jurisdiction over treaty lands and peoples.”
Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson denied having heard Smith’s comments the previous day comparing Alberta’s relationship with the federal government to the plight that has been faced by Indigenous people because of the Indian Act.
He said on Wednesday that the provincial government is working hard to create good relationships with the Indigenous community and its leaders, and that Smith explained to treaty leaders what the sovereignty act really means, and “how we want to help them step up as well and work with them on some projects.”
The premier’s office echoed these sentiments in a statement to Global News on Wednesday.
“Earlier today, the premier had a meeting with the Treaty 6 chiefs to continue building and strengthening relationships with Indigenous communities across Alberta,” the statement reads. “We look forward to continued engagement as we work together towards reconciliation and addressing the issues faced by our Indigenous and Métis communities.”
NDP MLA Richard Feehan said Indigenous people have been speaking out about Bill 1 for weeks and do not feel heard.
The relationship between Indigenous people and political leaders are “clearly not” being repaired, he said.
“They had an opportunity to have a conversation this morning, where they could have made some kind of a bridge with the First Nations communities and Treaty 6, and the province failed to do so,” Feehan added.
“It shows that, despite being asked time and time again, they’re failing to grasp what it is that’s being said to them… When you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re going to find yourself in trouble, and they certainly have.”
He said Smith is creating a narrative that completely undermines the history and experience of First Nations people and that trust is going “downhill on a daily basis.”
Matthew Wildcat, an assistant professor of political science and native studies at the University of Alberta, said it was apparent before the meeting that Smith does not understand treaty or Indigenous rights and title in Canada.
He said what he is most shocked by is what he described as Smith and her team’s lack of understanding of the most basic Indigenous politics.
“It shows me that, not only herself, but people in her inner circle haven’t spent 30 minutes learning about the Indian Act,” Wildcat said. “Because if you even spent even 30 minutes learning about what the Indian Act is, and what it’s done in the past, you would never say we’ve been treated in the exact same way that the paternalism of the Indian Act has treated Indigenous peoples.
“The Indian Act caused fundamental human rights violations — that isn’t anywhere close to the type of conflicts that exist between Alberta and Canada.”
Wildcat clarified that when Indigenous people refer to a treaty, it’s not just the legal text of the document — it’s about the way we live our lives and the standards we hold each other to in order for Indigenous peoples and Canadians to co-exist.
“It’s offensive, for anybody… it’s not just offensive for Indigenous people,” he said. “It’s offensive to anybody who would have any understanding of the Indian Act and its history and what it’s done.”
— With files from Morgan Black, Global News, and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press