Supporting First Nations Priorities on Indigenous Justice Systems and Reconciliation


Notes for an address by

The Honourable David Lametti
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Assembly of First Nations: Special Chiefs Assembly 2019
Ottawa, Ontario

December 4, 2019

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Thank you MC for that kind introduction.

To the Elders here today, to National Chief Bellegarde and all members of the AFN executive and Chiefs-in-Assembly: thank you for welcoming me to the Special Chiefs Assembly being held here on traditional Algonquin territory.

I am honoured to be speaking at today’s forum for the first time.

I am here today for many reasons. First among them, to meet and learn from the leaders in this room. I am not my predecessor. My life experience is different. I will not claim to understand the colonial experience from the vantage point of an Indigenous person. I can’t.

What I can do is work to ensure that First Nations voices and perspectives are lifted and meaningfully reflected in our approaches and institutions.

That means working in full partnership to affirm the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. 

You all know that  reconciliation is not a single moment in time. It is a process. A cultural shift. A change in the very way we think about our country, our institutions, and who we want to be.

What do I mean when I say that?

As some of you may already know, I was a law professor at McGill before I jumped into political life.

One course I taught was on Quebec civil law property. New students would come through the door with notebook in one hand, the Civil Code in the other, ready to learn about Quebec’s unique legal system.

But that wasn’t where we started.

Instead, our first day was spent exploring the traditional property system of the Wet'suwet'en people, a system that grew completely outside of Western legal tradition. We would spend the rest of the week learning and discussing the legal traditions of Indigenous communities across the country.

When we finally arrived at landmark court decisions that defined Indigenous rights, it was already clear to my students that the system was flawed. One legal system had completely engulfed the other, allowing the majority to impose its laws on the minority: the essence of colonialism.  

But the point I made to them, and one I’d like to convey to you now, is that it does not need to be this way.

In our pluralistic country with a deep, dark history of colonialism, we have a responsibility to rethink our approach. For meaningful reconciliation to happen, Indigenous legal traditions must be recognized in their own right, and applied alongside Western legal tradition.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with this, but the alternative is unacceptable. From over-representation in the criminal justice system to ongoing fights over inherent rights - the status quo has certainly not served the best interest of Indigenous peoples.

This is what the TRC identified, as did the final report of the commission into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It goes to the heart of a shift in culture that people in my position have a responsibility to foster, including elevating the voices of Indigenous peoples who are at the forefront of this work.

We are a long way from our destination, but I believe what we have accomplished in partnership over the past four years is important. My colleagues Ministers Miller and Bennett talked about some of those accomplishments in their remarks to you.

Canadian Human Rights Tribunal proceedings and Moushoom Class Action Lawsuit

Before I turn to some issues specific to my Department, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Specifically the recent ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on compensation for First Nations children and families.

Many of you believe our government’s response to that decision is a sign that we are not moving down a new path.

That question was weighing heavily on my mind when I was preparing to come speak with you today.

I want to be crystal clear – First Nations children have suffered and been hurt. Canada has caused that pain, and it is our responsibility to help them heal, which includes fair and equitable compensation.

Our issue with the Tribunal’s decision is about how it interpreted the law, and the limited, exclusionary path it has set out for remedy.

But make no mistake: these children and their families have suffered, and it is Canada’s responsibility to help repair the damage.

This is what partners and advocates have been fighting years for, and we are committed to working with partners like the AFN to achieve fair, equitable and inclusive healing for victims, which includes compensation.

We must do it once, and we must do it right.

The recently filed class action litigation is an opportunity for victims and their families to have their stories acknowledged and to begin their unique path to healing.

This is the same approach that resulted in comprehensive settlements for residential school survivors and the Sixties Scoop.

And it is my hope that it will result an comprehensive settlement for these victims and their families.

As Attorney General of Canada, it will always be my approach to resolve issues through discussions and collaboration with partners whenever possible.  

Thanks to the vision and leadership of my predessesor, my officials and I continue to be guided by the Directive on Civil Litigation Involving Indigenous Peoples.

But I am also cognizant that real partnership does not always mean agreement and smooth sailing.

But we have a larger goal to reach together. A better future for all of our children and grandchildren is one where we are actively de-colonizing our institutions, where Indigenous voices are elevated and where Indigenous peoples are in control of their own destinies.


At the heart of this work is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Our government has committed to co-develop legislation to implement the Declaration by the end of 2020.  I know that Minister Bennett spoke about this ongoing work earlier today.

I want you to know that I stand by that commitment and am ready to do the hard work that it entails, but can only achieve this with your collaboration and partnership. 

Traditions et systèmes juridiques autochtones et réconciliation

J’ai parlé plus tôt de l’importance des lois et des perspectives autochtones dans le cadre de mon travail en tant que professeur.

I spoke earlier about the importance of Indigenous laws and perspectives to my work as a professor.

As Minister of Justice and Attorney General, I am fully committed to working with you to advance those same laws and traditions in our justice system.

Your systems will reflect Indigenous cultures, traditions and values while they operate in harmony with justice regimes and processes across Canada.

The work to make that happen is going on now.

Budget 2019 provided $10 million over five years starting in this year, 2019-20, in support of Indigenous law initiatives across Canada.

This funding will help make a real difference for Indigenous peoples doing the challenging and exciting work of revitalizing their legal systems. This is one important part of what decolonizing Canadian law looks like.

In the same vein, Justice Canada is exploring how we can support Indigenous communities that have shown a desire to take control of justice responsibilities.

The goal of these projects is to support Indigenous communities in assuming control over this core function of self-determination. In turn, communities can address crime and violence in a way that better reflects their legal traditions and is more relevant to community members. 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and 2SLGBTQ people

Since November 25th, Canada has been marking the 16 days of activism to end gender-based violence.

No discussion of gender-based violence can ignore the fact that Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people are impacted by violence more than any other group in Canada. 

The National Inquiry’s Final Report brought these facts in to stark focus. We recognize that these are your sisters, mothers, aunties, daughters, and cousins.

And the Inquiry’s Calls for Justice raise key issues facing Canada’s criminal justice system.

My Department will continue to work within government and with you to identify ways to strengthen existing policies and programs. We want to increase the safety of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people in Canada.

One successful example is the Family Information Liaison Units, also known as FILUs. The FILUs were established in every province and territory to increase family members’ access to the information they are seeking from government agencies about their missing and murdered loved ones.

FILUs help families on their healing journey.  FILUs have organized the return of loved ones’ remains to the community, sometimes from across the country, and have helped organize releasing ceremonies with the family. They also help family members access ceremonies and other services they are seeking.

As part of our response to the National Inquiry’s interim report in 2018, Family Information Liaison Unit operations were renewed for an additional year.

We have heard from you that FILUs have been an extremely important resource to help ensure families and loved ones have somewhere to turn for help in finding answers. 

We know the need for answers and support hasn’t ended.  We want to make sure these important services continue to be available moving forward.

Which is why I’m happy to confirm our government is committed to extending FILU funding for another three years.  


Change is happening. The Government is evolving and learning to do things differently. The most fundamental element of our efforts is strengthening our relationships with First Nations, to hear your opinions, learn from your expertise, knowledge and experiences, as well as work together to achieve your priorities.

To truly recognize the importance of the legal traditions of our Indigenous partners, we must actually build them into our system of justice. I believe that this can be accomplished by continuing to work together.

As International Human Rights Day reminds us each year on December 10, this is part of a broader human rights project --- as Senator Murray Sinclair has said, “we must proceed one step at a time. It will not always be easy. There will be storms, there will be obstacles, but we cannot allow ourselves to be daunted by the task because our goal is Just and it is also necessary.”

I believe we can advance our shared goal of walking the road of reconciliation together. 

I would like to once again thank the Elders, AFN National Chief and its leadership for welcoming me today. I am humbled by your partnership , and appreciate the many opportunities we have to work with you.

Thank you, Migwetch 

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