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Special Assembly in Ottawa

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller delivered remarks at the Assembly of First Nations’ special chiefs assembly in Ottawa. The minister took questions from chiefs following his address this Tuesday. (Courtesy Clinton Phillips)

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Special Chiefs Assembly (SCA) brought together First Nation leaders from across Canada, including chiefs from Kahnawake and Kanesatake in Ottawa this week, to advocate on behalf of Indigenous people, to find solutions on fundamental issues, and set priorities for the upcoming year.

MCK grand chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton, chief Clinton Phillips, and Mohawk Council of Kanesatake grand chief Serge Otsi Simon attended the three-day summit from Tuesday to Thursday for several pre-assembly meetings (including an Anishinabek Nation/Iroquois Caucus Nuclear Waste Working Group networking meeting), for discussions on Bill C-92 (“An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit & Metis Children”), and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Additionally, minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, NDP Party Leader Jagmeet Singh, and AFN chief Perry Bellegarde were scheduled to speak at the assembly under the theme “Honouring Promises.”

Justin Trudeau was in London for the NATO summit, and wasn’t in attendance at the SCA.

At the gathering, Bellegarde delivered opening remarks on youth policy issues, considering them as a top priority while conferring with the federal government.

“We do call on this government to finally work with leadership, and families and people to finally implement a national youth suicide prevention strategy,” AFN chief Perry Bellegarde said in video recorded by CPAC (the Cable Public Affairs Channel). “That is needed, and that supports all of our young people.”

Phillips said the lack of infrastructure and services, clean water and climate change, and human rights were the primary questions discussed among delegates during the gathering.

“We did speak with newly appointed Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller,” Phillips said. “He discussed a lot of the issues existing in today’s Canada, the issues of boiled water advisory, about houses that are not appropriate for living.”

Phillips believes clean water should be a right for every citizen in Canada, and Indigenous people should not have a 25-year boil water advisorsy, calling it “really ridiculous.”

Although Miller “was bombarded with these questions that he wasn’t ready for as he was only been appointed for ten days,” Phillips believes minister Miller is able to help the community to move forward to achieve some solutions of the issues.

“He came to Kahnawake very often,” Phillips said, “So, hopefully we have an ally from the federal government, because of our past relationship.”

He said a lot of things that other First Nations are facing in terms of issues may not necessarily be issues in Kahnawake.

“I guess we are very fortunate in Kahnawake to have many services, including health services and an education system, and housing programs,” he continued.

However, at the gathering there was very little spoken about the results of Bill S-3, which people are concerned about, Phillips said.

He thinks the whole issue around S-3 is “extremely alarming,” because the new registrations to Kahnawake membership is increasing.

“We were sending invitations to both ministers, Marc Miller and Carolyn Bennett, to come to Kahnawake jointly to hear concerns,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll have them before they go to break for Christmas.

“I think a lot of people are putting a lot of faith in Marc and his abilities,” Phillips continued. “Marc has really taken an initiative and is doing a very good job.”

Miller, who started his speech in Mohawk at the assembly, after introducing himself, said the question of proposed compensation for children apprehended in discriminatory child welfare policies is “on top of his mind right now,” according to video recording by the CPAC.

“It is a difficult, emotional and painful topic, particularly because we are dealing with children,” Miller said, talking about the hearing in federal court held last week.

He said Canada’s commitment to compensate Native children harmed by the government’s family and child policy is firm.

“Part of my job as a new minister is to work with other ministers to get our houses in order,” he said. “Me and my officials, it is us assuming responsibility for the promises we’ve made and for the mistakes in implementing them.”

Phillips feels the assembly is worth attending, where chiefs can get an opportunity to bring forward their issues with the government, share stories and learn from each other.

Phillips thinks although the prime minister’s attempts at reconciliation is very loose, the chiefs are still hopeful to see positive changes.

“If we are looking at 200 years of injustices that were done to First Nation people, I don’t think it’ll be repaired in a year, or two, or three,” he said, “I think it is going to take quite some time, because, don’t forget, unfortunately the Indian Act is still there in Canada.”

As David Lametti, minister of Justice and Attorney General, was talking about incorporating Indigenous law into Canadian law, looking at alternatives to putting First Nations, Inuit and Metis people in jail for minor offences, chief Simon answered that “justice has to be considered in many ways. Our view of justice is the same principle as our worldview,” Simon said. “Each nation has a way of looking at things – whether its hunting, fishing, or education.

“Under international commitments, it says other means – other than incarceration – are to be considered in view of First Nations people,” he continued.

Simon says justice, and the perception of justice, certainly is as complex as the country itself.

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