By Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada’s National Observer
From his home office, Pierre Poilievre spoke to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) through a video address about economic reconciliation and how Indigenous Peoples ought to benefit from natural resource projects.
But chiefs who took to the microphone after the Conservative leader’s speech lambasted Poilievre.
Randy Ermineskin, chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation on Treaty 6 territory, blamed conservatives for developing the Alberta and Saskatchewan sovereignty acts, known as the Saskatchewan First Act and the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. This legislation threatens treaty rights developed in conjunction with the Crown, chiefs argue.
The Alberta Sovereignty Act grew from a paper titled the Free Alberta Strategy, which argues it is “critical to strengthening Alberta’s sovereignty and self-determination.” A policy paper written by Poilievre was referenced in the endnotes.
“It’s unconstitutional; Alberta doesn’t have that right to change laws because we signed treaties with the Crown,” Ermineskin said in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.
Alberta didn’t exist when treaties were signed, which sets the stage for jurisdictional battles around the acts, Ermineskin added.
The proxy chief from Onion Lake Nation in Treaty 6 territory, Sask., voiced disappointment over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approach to the sovereignty acts during the prime minister’s question period at the assembly.
Trudeau said the federal government is “extremely concerned” about how the sovereignty acts will affect treaty rights but will not engage in the political fight Alberta is looking for.
The federal government’s relationship with the provinces isn’t like a father telling a child what to do, Trudeau added.
“The remedy to that is through the court system.”
There are concerns that gains made in child welfare reform at the assembly will be negated by the sovereignty acts, since child-welfare agreements are between First Nations and Canada. Child welfare is a provincial jurisdiction, but First Nations are working with the federal government to transfer control of those services to First Nations themselves. It’s unclear how these acts will play out with Crown-Indigenous relations in the provinces, particularly around child welfare.
Seventy per cent of children in foster care in Alberta are Indigenous, according to Alberta’s recent child intervention information and statistics summary.
An emergency resolution at the assembly was developed to challenge the sovereignty acts. And on Thursday, the assembly voted to formally oppose the Alberta law and the Saskatchewan bill, which “abrogate and negate First Nations’ sovereignty,” the resolution reads.
It directs the assembly to formally demand the withdrawal of the Alberta and Saskatchewan acts.
The emergency resolution also instructs the AFN to support First Nations that want to engage with Alberta and Saskatchewan on resource revenue sharing, so nations can benefit from the wealth extracted from their traditional territories.
Finally, the resolution directs the AFN to commission a legal analysis on issues surrounding territorial and provincial legislative encroachment on First Nations’ sovereignty, rights and title.
The Natural Resource Transfer Acts passed in 1930 will be included in the legal analysis, which will also examine the Saskatchewan First Act and the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.
The Natural Resource Transfer Acts shifted control of land and resources to the provinces, which chiefs questioned at the assembly.
Chief Ermineskin noted sovereignty act legislation is racist and was derived from racist thinking. Treaties are meant to act as a solution in nation-to-nation relations, but sovereignty acts could bypass those treaties.
When asked if the sovereignty acts embolden racists, Ermineskin said: “Of course, it’s getting worse — we need to talk about it.
“We’ve talked about reconciliation; that’s just a word people use in public, they don’t mean it,” he said. “We’ve been in it, trying to resolve issues, and there’s no respect given to us.”