The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, addresses the Assembly of First Nations 38th Annual General Assembly.


Greetings! Tan-say  – Ah-Neen  – Kway  – Gway – Mahsi Ah-ban-ah-ness – Bonjour!

It is an honour to be here with you on Treaty 4 territory.

I would like to start off by acknowledging the Drum and the Whitefish Junior drummers.

I would like to thank Elder Buffalo for the prayer that helped us open this assembly in a good way.

I want to acknowledge the Chiefs, council members, elders, youth, my fellow cabinet ministers, Andrew Scheer, Jasmeet Singh and other observers for being here today.
I want to acknowledge the BC First Nations who have been dislocated from their lands and their homes because of the wildfires.

And I want to lift up the courageous efforts of those First Nations helping on the front lines, fighting the fires, protecting your lands, and opening your communities and your hearts to those who had to leave their homes.

Know that we are with you. We will help you quickly rebuild, and we will also work with you to better protect your communities going forward.

I would like to start with a quote from the visionary Chief Poundmaker.  

It seems quite fitting as I understand that some of Chief Poundmaker’s belongings have just found their way home.

Here is what the Chief said about looking ahead, and not pausing too long:

We all know the story about the man who sat by the trail too long, and then it grew over, and he could never find his way again. We can never forget what has happened, but we cannot go back. Nor can we just sit beside the trail.

I am going to spare you the usual speech outlining the list of the historic investments and all the steps that we have taken together in the past year and a half on our shared journey of reconciliation. Instead, I would like us to look further down the trail.

We have an opportunity to make history together. We have an obligation to our children and their children and grandchildren to set out an ambitious vision, take bold steps, and think in new ways.
Acclaimed novelist Tracey Lindberg says:

I find the “re” part of reconciliation really hard, because I think that perhaps this isn’t about going to a place we’ve been before, but perhaps this is about going to someplace we’ve never been.

We must listen to your ancestors and right the wrongs together...and then together we need to chart a new trail that – as Tracy has said - is ‘someplace we’ve never been.’

Reconciliation for our government has 3 parts - closing the gaps, resetting the relationship based upon a recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership, and working every day to achieve that essential goal of self-determination.   

I’ll start with a few questions, which build on the remarks from my friend and colleague, the Minister of Justice:  In ten years, how many of you will still be under the Indian Act?

How many of you will be a part of re-constituted, self-governing nations?

How many of you see self-determination in your future?

During consultations in North Winnipeg, a resident asked a very interesting question:

“Why is it that the poor have programs and the middle class has institutions?”

He was right. Canada must get out of the business of delivering programs and work with you to build First Nations-led institutions, and self-government.

Self-government brings benefits to First Nations communities.

The evidence shows it.

Community well-being scores increase for residents of self-governing First Nations.

People have better housing, more jobs and higher income in these communities.

When people are involved in the decisions affecting their communities, they have better outcomes. In Sweden the number one health goal is civic participation.   

It makes sense. Full participation in decisions in the policies that affect you increases sense of control and resilience and strengthens health.

Over ten years ago, researchers Chandler and Lalonde in BC showed that youth suicides dropped in First Nations communities that had “cultural continuity” – a link to tradition and culture.

Since then, we’ve seen that in communities that are grounded in their ceremonies and spirituality, and that have control over their health care and education, the suicide rate drops.

That is the starting point.

Children need hope. They need to know that they are valued.  They need to know - as you’ve chosen the title for this Assembly - that they are indeed ‘Our priority, our future.

Yesterday at the AFN Youth Council, those inspiring young people talked to me about their Calls to Action on Life Promotion - concrete recommendations for governments on how to stop this tragedy.

They want to be part of the solutions. They want to build capacity in their communities.

They want to increase the skills of all young people on Life Promotion, identifying suicidal ideation, and being able to say the right things to get their friends to appropriate help.

They asked us to focus on the strengths in communities. Not just focus on the deficits.

They want us shine a light on the strengths in their communities and build from them. Every single one of them demonstrated their expertise and lived experience. We need to listen to them.

Meeting with youth councils coast to coast to coast, they reiterate the urgent need for land-based programming and language immersion. They understand the importance of a secure personal cultural identity.

One of the most important areas in which we need to work together is child welfare – or, more accurately put – the rights and wellbeing of Indigenous children. It was the first 5 TRC C2A.

The statistics are appalling. You know them as well as I do.

Our heart breaks every time a child is taken from your community. Our shared goal is to ensure that children get the very best start in life. It means that we have to prevent them from entering 'the system' in the first place. And it means that we have to dismantle the child welfare industry.

A focus on children's wellbeing means that dollars need to go to kids and families and communities not to lawyers and agencies and non-indigenous foster parents. And that First Nations, not federal, provincial, or territorial governments, need to have jurisdiction in child and family services.

Last month I met with granny and knowledge-keeper Katherine Whitecloud of the Dakota Nation with other members of the Manitoba Grandmothers Circle.

Katherine is a member of the National Advisory Council on child welfare reform. She is also working with Cora Morgan at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs on a federally funded proposal that would empower the grandmothers to ensure that children are raised in community with their language and culture.

Cora Morgan and AMC already have instituted the moccasin project, in which they are 'on-call' for any indigenous child being apprehended no matter what time of day or night – it could be 2 a.m. – they arrive and put a tiny pair of moccasins on the baby's feet before it leaves the hospital. Every child begins their life's journey as an indigenous child.  

Katherine and Cora and the grandmothers are calling out the perverse incentives – that existing funding models incentivize taking children into care. They pointed out to me that this also inhibits children from returning to their communities, as the agency would lose funding.

As FSIN Vice Chief Bear said yesterday, the present system is not working in the 'best interests of our children'.

We need to prevent children and families from entering ‘the system’ at all. This is the reform work that is happening at tripartite tables across the country as we speak only communities know the homes that are healthy, which auntie or cousin could be asked to look after the children while the parent seeks healing.

We are committed to working with you to make the changes necessary to create a system for children’s rights and well-being. Indigenous children have a right to be raised as Indigenous people. Foster parenting can no longer be used as steady revenue for non-indigenous families.  

As Dr. Evan Adams – chief medical officer at the First Nations Health Authority - has stated, a child apprehended at birth lives 20 years less. These apprehensions have to stop.

We want to work with you to support community driven solutions for reform. Yesterday, I was pleased to sign of an Accord with FSIN, which supports their vision of jurisdiction and governance models for child and family services.  

Over the next few months, we will advance additional projects like these across the country, in full partnership with First Nations communities. And we will continue to advance progress at our tripartite tables on comprehensive reforms.

Throughout the pre-inquiry MMIWG – time and time we heard about the effects of childhood sexual violence and the attachment to the child welfare system in the experiences of both the victims and the perpetrators.

Hurt people – hurt people. They also hurt themselves.

We talk about intergenerational trauma – but we have to name it – and we have to get people the healing necessary to stop it.

A hugely important tool in breaking this cycle of violence is culture and ceremony.

Making sure individuals and communities are grounded – creating and celebrating that secure sense of personal and cultural identity that is resilience.  

We must also do more to support First Nations to build capacity in their communities. Comprehensive Community Plans – or CCPs – are not just about infrastructure and housing and water.  They’re about First Nations planning community development in a way that meets your needs and aspirations – in all areas of community life.

162 First Nations are already reaping the benefits of CCPs.

Community-led planning is at the heart of what we are all trying to achieve - when elders and youth and women's circle, the school principal, the social workers, the nurse, the police chief come together with Chief and Council, good things happen. Strengths can be identified and built upon. Priorities and timelines are established, and the community buys in to the plan and holds the leadership accountable.

The ability for communities to do long-term planning is at the heart of how we are going to go about building this new fiscal relationship, and it is at the heart of self-determination.

Canada takes this journey of reconciliation very seriously.

As the Prime Minister says, renewing the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples is a sacred obligation.  

Canada will work in partnership with First Nations to identify and meaningfully address harms that have resulted from colonization and the dispossession of their lands, territories and resources.

Part of that journey is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I want to thank Grand Chief Ed John, Willie Littlechild, Romeo Saganash and the many Canadians who worked for years to realize the vision of the Declaration -  whose 10th Anniversary will be celebrated this September in New York.

In direct response to the Declaration, Canada is reviewing federal laws and policies impacting Indigenous peoples.

As, Minister Wilson-Raybould explained, our government is committed to working with Indigenous people to change laws and policies that were designed and written in a paternalistic and colonial way.

It means that our laws will reflect Canada’s Constitutional obligations to treaty and Aboriginal rights, and align with the Declaration.

This is about breathing life into Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution – which formally entrenches the rights of Indigenous people in Canadian law – and yet, for far too long, has not been lived up to.

Supporting self-determination for First Nations involves several important aspects: the new fiscal relationship – which will help close the socio-economic gap – aggregation and building on assets already in your communities.

Last year, the National Chief and I signed an MOU on a process to determine a new fiscal relationship between First Nations and Canada.  Today, we have announced concrete actions resulting from that agreement.  

Together, we are fixing two long-standing issues. First, the opportunity to carry forward and access unexpended funding will be expanded.

The second is on INAC’s policy on Operations and Maintenance, introduced almost 20 years ago. This policy is outdated, and simply does not reflect the realities First Nations communities face.

Together with the AFN, we are identifying options for a new policy framework that is co-developed, and which removes the inequalities of the current policy, which has directly contributed to the socio-economic gap in many communities. Our plan is to put forward this plan with options, this coming December.
These changes represent a critical and long overdue shift in the way we do things.  

In addition, as requested by self-governing First Nations, we have declared a full moratorium on the government’s similarly punitive own-source-revenue policy, as we co-develop a new fiscal relationship and new policy with those communities.  

This also was long overdue.  The OSR claw-back served as a punitive measure to communities, and was a deterrent to conversations on self-determination.

I often get asked, “What does the nation-to-nation relationship look like?”

And I always answer honestly: "it’s not up to me to decide"

It is up to First Nations to decide who comes to the table and how – whether by treaty, geography, or language and culture.

Often I get told to go and read RCAP – the report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

I reread it and reread it.

I am reminded about the importance of a report so grounded in community, so much about indigenous leadership of 'asking not telling'

When listening to the youth and the elders and the women, they are worried about breaking out of comfort zones. Taking risks. As is said, wanting to comfort the afflicted but also afflict the comfortable. Nudge those who seem to be a little too comfortable with the status quo.

As Inuvialuit leader Nellie Cournoyea said in 1975: “Paternalism has been a total failure.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We need to undergo deprogramming, as Lee Crowchild says, from the cult of paternalism.

Breaking out of the cult of paternalism can only happen once the voices of women, youth and elders are heard in the structures of power – and that includes First Nations structures.

Yesterday in meeting with your Women’s Council it was clear to me that increasing the voices of indigenous women will be an important metric in assessing progress in decolonization.

From the settlers only speaking to men, to the Indian Act to the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, women were displaced as leaders. The indigenous women leaders are now in the forefront of turning around the tragedy of violence against women focused on the healing needed in their communities which must include the men and boys.

We thank them for their support of the families of MMIWG, and their ongoing advocacy.

We also want to get out of the industry that has been built around programs. This includes getting rid of 3rd party managers, and consultants, and what Dr Alika LaFontaine calls the non-indigenous 'outside voices' peddling a silver bullet that'll fix everything.  

You have been very clear…resources need to be focused in communities, with families, on the land programming, capacity building, language immersion, better schools and great indigenous teachers...not on consultants helping you deal with broken government systems  with too much red tape and unrealistic deadlines.  

We need to break out of this status quo industry.

Youth want to work with elders to part of be the architects of their own future - building their own institutions and working towards self-determination.  

And a keystone is strong, First-Nations-led education systems. As Murray Sinclair says 'It was education that got us into this mess and it'll be education that will get us out of it.

I remember being in Southwest Ontario for the ceremony with Min Sajan returning the land at Ipperwash that had been taken during WWII. I visited the school there and was so impressed with the quality of the essay-writing course, the language fluency of the youth, but particularly one teacher who said to me... I used to be a good teacher but now I know I’m a great teacher.  

At the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and Walpole Island First Nation – they the children have better literacy rates than in the rest of Ontario thanks to their Model School Literacy Project.

In the words of Dr. Nora Murdock, from the inspiring Manitoba FN Education Resource Council “It will take some time and rethinking of how we “do” education for First Nations.”

What’s important is looking at how First-Nations-led education can have better outcomes. Indigenous pedagogy of 'learning by doing' summer immersion programming granting credits. Youth off for Goose break in the spring and moose break in the fall.

20 years ago the Mi’kmaq decided to take over the Education System in Nova Scotia. They had a 30% high school graduation rate at the time. Chief Leroy decided to become a teacher because of that initiative.

MK now has a high-school graduation rate of about 87 per cent, which is higher than that of the non-Indigenous population in Canada. FN control over FN education works.

I and many others are truly inspired by the power of Indigenous tourism and sharing of Indigenous culture.  As Mississauga of the Credit elder Peter Schuler said at a consultation with Minister Freeland ….” You can sell a canoe trip 40 times”

Indigenous communities are also capitalizing on tourism opportunities and creating thriving businesses.

I was thrilled to see the documentary on the Carcross/Tagish First Nation mountain bike trails in Yukon.  

The youths built the trails out of old hunting paths and turned them into the one of the most popular mountain biking destinations in the world.  

Every Friday the paths are closed so that the youth can ride them and determine the areas in need of repair. They have a sense of ownership and pride as they know they are part of building economic opportunity for the whole community.

I loved learning at the T’Sou-ke Nation about their prosperous oyster farm providing seed oysters to other communities, and their wasabi greenhouse project which supplies Vancouver restaurants and harvests solar energy providing free electricity for plug-in cars at the band office.

From the hunting, fishing and gathering projects in Kluani First Nation in Yukon, to the new chicken and vegetable farming in Garden's exciting to see traditional ways together with innovative to approaches to tackle the pressing issues of food security in remote and rural communities.  

I want to end with two thoughts.  

First, we want to partner with you on building on the strengths and assets you already have in your communities.  You have the power to determine the future of your communities.  We are here to help you do what you know you need to do.  We are committed to help you build FN led institutions and FN led governments.

And last, I want to leave you with a message of hope, and it’s about youth.

As the Prime Minister says, youth are not only our future – they are our present.

Today, Indigenous youth are aspiring to develop a strong personal and cultural identity - to walk in both worlds as Chief Dan George said.

So in closing I want us to remember Poundmaker's trail... but also remind you about my trip with the youth from LaLoche last summer of the North Saskatchewan river.

If you recall we paddled for 3 hours …… we beached our canoe on this huge rock….. we had to get out and walk our cane through water too shallow to paddle ….. but the current was with us and we got to our destination.

The current is with us. We need to use this historic opportunity wisely and boldly. When we hit a rock, we have to move the weight around and float the canoe back into the water…. we can’t give up and say ‘see we always hit a rock’ ….  We have to think our way through the shallow water …. Everyone gets out together and walks he canoe into deeper water….

I am looking forward to walking this trail with you. I look forward to paddling this river with you. The strong current is going to get us to a new place in our relationship.  

Canadians want this to work. They want to help.
And they, like all of us, want to confront and end the systemic racism towards Indigenous peoples that still exists in our society and our institutions. And we need to bring them along with us as allies on this journey of reconciliation.

Max Fine Day of Canadian Roots inspires us with the amazing 87% of non-indigenous youth who think they will see reconciliation in their lifetime.
You have chosen the theme of your conference well…Our priority: Our Children, Our Future.   
With your amazing leadership, together we can get this done. Your children and grandchildren will thank you.

Together, we can and will clear Poundmaker's trail so that “nation-to-nation” is something we live and breathe within our lifetime.

Thank you. Merci. Chi-Meegwetch. Mahsi Cho.

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