Evidence of meeting #10 for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was first.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Jonathan Genest-Jourdain Manicouagan, QC

What is your understanding of the concept of sustainable development?

You also mentioned various partnerships, with industry, among others. Could you further explain this aspect to us? More precisely, what are these partnerships that are envisaged?

My final question relates to partnerships with industry. It sometimes happens that aboriginal communities are used as a façade, that their name is used in order to obtain funding or to be eligible for certain contracts. With a view to avoiding such behaviour, what focus will you place on the real commitment of aboriginal communities within this type of partnership?

11:50 a.m.

National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo

I'll work backwards from your last question because, through expanding procurement both directly with government and through major contracts, I think this committee and government can facilitate the direct involvement of first nations. I wanted to begin with a practical aspect of your question.

In some provinces, we see this happening more, but I think there is a lot of room for growth. Government can play a direct and active role in facilitating procurement and involving first nations on the contracting side. I know there's some good work happening there.

But I'll come back to your first and biggest question, the question around sustainable development. As we hear first nations say, first nations are not opposed to development. They're just not supportive of development at any cost. This means that the values of first nations, that... In my language we use the phrase “Hishuk ish tsawalk”: we are all one and interconnected. We are connected and embedded in the lands and in the environment around us.

First nations feel very acutely an imbalance that has arisen, whether it's due to dwindling clean water supplies or the climate change impacts that first nations--especially throughout the north--talk about. We see climate change impacts in the territories that I come from and that the regional chief comes from on Vancouver Island. We know that our fishing stocks have been impacted, both through climate change and through such things as clear-cut logging over the course of history, which decimated the fish stocks in my own home territory.

So first nations that I see on the land are giving expression through green energy projects, for example, and changing forestry systems. Forestry was mentioned earlier: why couldn't Canada end up with some strong branding? We do forestry in a sustainable manner, where indigenous peoples are directly involved in having a much lighter footprint on the earth, where we're doing much more with the resources we have available to us.

I will mention again that the earlier questions around consultation and accommodation impact here: engage early and engage often with first nations. I know that many major projects are 25 or 50 years in the making, and that a major mine might change hands from companies that front the project, making it very difficult to establish relationships. Well, with first nations, it's very important that those relationships be established early, and that you build trust, because trust is something that has been lacking in the relationship between first nations and industry, as well as in the relationship between first nations and government.

Through these new partnerships, we see impact benefit agreements and we see increased revenue-sharing agreements being developed. We can learn from the good examples that are being created.

Finally, to your question, I believe that first nations are now prepared in major areas such as energy. We know that this country does not have a comprehensive national plan for energy. We know that we don't have a North American comprehensive plan for energy. Well, first nations will step into a leadership role, and we will help shape the future of our relationship with natural resources, including non-renewables such as oil and gas.

We're prepared to take on that role. We suggest that we can do it in a way of real partnership, whereby we will generate sustainable economies that create new jobs in communities, but we will also take a leading role in areas such as the green economy and will suggest alternatives. We realize that we are going to need non-renewables; we're going to need fossil fuels. That's a part of our life right now, but how can we move away from dependence on those so that we can return to a greater sense of balance between first nations and the living environment around us?

I appreciate that question.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Mr. Payne, you have five minutes.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I would like to welcome back Chief Atleo. I believe that the last time we saw you in this committee, Chief, was in about December of last year. It's good to have you back.

Of course, welcome to Jody, who was here a week or so ago.

Jennifer, welcome as well.

National Chief, I was listening to your comments with great interest. In particular, you talked about crown relationships.

In one part of your comments, you talked a bit about accountability. I have some questions around that. Accountability is a very broad concept, encompassing many different aspects of governance, from elections to financial transparency. My question is, what does the AFN envision with respect to strengthening the accountability of first nations, governments, and leaders to their citizens?

11:55 a.m.

National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Accountability is really critical and I know that we as first nations reflect on our history of accountability. Previous to the new structure--such as the Indian Act--coming in, we can point to much more direct accountability mechanisms that were directly between first nations governments and their citizens. The Indian Act, something we all inherited, changed that dynamic, creating accountability mechanisms between first nations and the Minister of Indian Affairs.

I think there's a shared notion that we need to put back in place proper accountability mechanisms between first nations governments and their citizens. In this way, first nations leaders and governments are very much taking a lead. They are demonstrating leadership in this area.

The AFN unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming their commitment to maintaining transparent and accountable decision-making structures in first nations communities. The notion of true accountability goes much further than reporting on funds or disclosing salaries.

The outgoing Auditor General also reflected on the challenges that I was referring to in the Indian Act relationship between first nations and governments: that the Government of Canada needs to be accountable to first nations for how it discharges its responsibility to first nations and for the outcomes of its actions. This is the reason for the structural suggestions that we move to a first nations auditor general concept: so that we can bring in some independence and essentially mirror an effective mechanism like that of an auditor general, but also have something for first nations specifically.

As well, we suggest a first nations ombudsperson concept. We don't have that. The Assembly of First Nations often has people coming to us around disputes that may arise, but I don't have that authority or that responsibility. First nations have been saying for a long time that they are prepared to work with government to establish such a mechanism as an ombudsperson. These mechanisms can provide oversight, ensure that funding policies and programs are truly working for first nations governments and their citizens, and achieve the change that we can all agree to.

The concluding point is that we've all inherited a system that in the end does not offer true accountability. The bureaucracy has been growing, with innumerable people chasing reports that don't end up being read. That's what the Auditor General said, not what I've said.

So I think we do need to achieve a much higher level of efficiency, but I come back to my earlier point: the theme needs to be about seeing each other's jurisdiction and about jointly designing a way forward, with the first nation-crown gathering being the kind of place where we can agree.

Let's hit the reset button. Let's agree to a plan of action that will change this, as opposed to doing a long string of one-offs that in the end don't really deliver true accountability.

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Do I have any time left, Mr. Chair?

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Just one minute.

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Okay.

That leads me into another question. I know, National Chief, that you are working with the minister on many initiatives. One of the things you were talking about is accountability. How do you see that accountability impacting the opportunity for economic development for first nations?

11:55 a.m.

National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo

Once first nations are on a stable footing with infrastructure so they can ensure that they're not lurching from crisis to crisis.... If we can achieve long-term sustainable funding for their communities, first nations suddenly would have, either on their own or collectively, the kind of stability they need to offer business certainty to the community. This creates a whole new dynamic.

We're now seeing a small number of first nations who have been able to accomplish this. I think one has achieved ISO international standards in their community, and there's every reason why all communities can achieve those levels of standards for their citizens. In a sports analogy, it's a matter of getting out of our own way. As a country, we've been unable to do that on these issues.

I'm very hopeful that this is the time, when it comes to the barriers in the Indian Act, when we can find a way to move beyond that and go back to that nation-to-nation relationship. If we have first nations who are no longer lurching from crisis to crisis, and where their citizens know there's accountability directly to them, I think we're creating the conditions for economic prosperity.

If we address the barriers of unlocking the economic potential of the lands that first nations hold, and if we're responding to the education needs of the community, those are beginning to be the kinds of elements that any society, including Canada more broadly, would seek to have in place in order to unleash the economic potential of their communities.

Noon

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Thank you.

National Chief, we asked you to be here until noon. I'm wondering whether we could ask you to stay for an additional 10 minutes or so. We started a little late, and we have a couple of questioners who would like to ask questions, if that's all right.

Okay, colleagues, we'll have the next two people on the list ask their questions.

Thank you, National Chief.

Mr. Bevington.

Noon

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

Thanks, Mr. Chair.

Thanks to the delegation here today. I very much appreciate your being here to give us the insight that can assist this committee in moving forward. We'll be here for a while, as we're in a majority government now, and that's not likely to change for a while. We want to see progress on many fronts. That has to be the goal here.

You mentioned streamlining comprehensive claims processes. We've been talking about that a fair bit over the last number of meetings. In my constituency, of course, and in the north, this is an extremely important issue and is one that faces a number of groups yet. What's your best advice here?

Noon

National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo

Similar to the way in which we reformed the Specific Claims Act process--while not perfect, it was I think a step forward, in that it was joint--we would like to see a Specific Claims Act tribunal legislative effort, perhaps with some additions or reforms to make it more effective.

But to get to your question, for years, first nations have been calling for a joint reform of the comprehensive claims negotiation process.

We're seeing out of B.C. some cause for concern being expressed by the current treaty commissioner, Sophie Pierre, who is saying that the process really needs to be reformed, that we need to address federal mandates. The Hul'qumi'num people of central Vancouver Island, petitioning at the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission, are raising the issues in international fora around challenges with the negotiating policy that currently frames negotiations between first nations and Canada.

I would suggest, in short, that we examine how we jointly reform the way negotiations are occurring. It's not as though we're starting from scratch. I think we know where the major challenges are, but are we prepared to jointly address them? That's a question I would put back to government and to this committee in regard to seeing whether or not we are prepared to do that.

I would suggest that the first nation-crown gathering I have spoken of is perhaps a place to consider resetting it. If the goal that we share is to expedite and move towards settlement so that we can get to the economic prosperity we know to be possible, there is a major economic component to settling the land issue, whether it's within the treaties context or in the comprehensive claims negotiation context. There is a huge economic component to this conversation. As a country, we are missing our collective potential by not addressing the resolution of these issues.

I'd reiterate for emphasis that these solutions are not for unilateral resolution. This is something we must jointly design while deciding that we have to find a new way forward.

Noon

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Mr. Rafferty, you have two minutes.

November 1st, 2011 / noon

NDP

John Rafferty Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Boujou. Awbinogeeyak. Meegwetch.

Thank you very much for being here. I welcome you to this sitting.

Thank you, Mr. Bevington, for sharing your time with me.

I have a quick question. Canadians have heard for some time now that the government will be cutting back, that the next number of years are going to be pretty slim in terms of funding for various things.

One of the things leaders tell me in my community is that the urban aboriginal strategy is facing cutbacks; it's done through Aboriginal Affairs Canada. As demographics are clearly changing in this country as to urban and rural and who lives where, I wonder whether you could give us some comments about the importance of the urban aboriginal strategy.

12:05 p.m.

National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo

First I have a couple of comments. I'll respond to those comments in the context of the role of the Assembly of First Nations, which is to serve and support first nations.

It was mentioned earlier that this committee has had representations from a number of groups. I think I heard Inuit being mentioned, and I'm sure Métis groups have come in. So there have been representations from the three distinct indigenous peoples recognized in the Constitution: first nations, Inuit, and Métis.

The three national organizations talk a lot. We talk a lot about the fact that as indigenous peoples collectively, first nations, Inuit, and Métis also flow between the rural and the urban settings, that the term “aboriginal” in fact encompasses all three, and it would be important to speak to the Métis and the Inuit about their urban aboriginal population.

In the Assembly of First Nations, we have has strong relationships with those who provide services in the urban settings. When I came to office, we launched a portfolio area focusing on an urban strategy, recognizing the importance of service delivery.

The response, though, is not disconnected from this conversation so far. The decisions to be away from home are many, and they're complex. They link with externally imposed divisions that include the residential school system, the lack of clean drinking water, the fact that we need 40 schools, and that there isn't housing in the villages. So it's not disconnected from this discussion: the reasons for people being away from home are very often also connected.

First nations also feel strongly about supporting the choice of first nations about where to reside, and right now that choice is limited on first nations reserve lands. For the Assembly of First Nations, our role and responsibility is to support first nation citizens wherever they reside. We work with groups such as the Friendship Centres, which have provided important historic supports for communities.

What we don't want to see is conflict or competition between people for what are already, as you rightly pointed out, resources that are limited. But when times were good, when the resources were there, first nations didn't see a shift in funding. The 2% cap has been around since 1996, and the Auditor General reflected on a full 10 years: the reflection was that the gap was deepening. This, then, becomes about how we ensure that all first nations are going to be supported going forward.

First nations governments have a principal responsibility to support their citizens, and it's to them that I would look for instructions on how we support their citizens wherever they reside. Many of the challenges are to ensure that first nations governments are supported to build their capacity and be as effective as possible, and to ensure that they have the resources available to support their citizens.

Post-secondary education is a good example, regardless of whether you're at home or in the urban setting. Are the resources going to be there to support success in the area of post-secondary education? We're hearing in many instances that communities unfortunately are not able to support their citizens. This is a good example of needing to ensure that we have full support for citizens wherever they reside.