Speech of Minister Carolyn Bennett during the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly


Shaw Centre
Ottawa, Ontario
December 6th, 2017

As delivered,

Greetings! Bonjour. Óki. Aanii.

Thank you, elder Rose, for starting this assembly in a very good way and with your wise words and your thanks to the Creator in your own language.  We thank the Bear Nation and the presence of the drum and the eagle staff and the veterans and all the elders here.  We thank the councillor for welcoming us to this traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin people.  And we are so grateful for all of you.  

As the elder said, the chiefs are very important, and this Special Chiefs Assembly becomes increasingly important as we have this important work to do together.  And I just wanted to say that it was so important for Minister Philpott, Minister Wilson-Raybould and I to be joined by so many colleagues from Parliament of Canada, and maybe they would stand.  I know some of them have had to go back for committee meetings and things, but if all of the Members of Parliament would stand, I think it's really important that (applause) we acknowledge this partnership in terms of the Parliament of Canada and you as the chiefs of your nations.  

Although the Prime Minister is unable to be with us for your SCA this year - I have heard from so many of you how important his recent speech to the UNGA has been in laying out the painful truths in the history of this country.

The unacceptable realities of the inequalities that still exist in the present, and the vision and values that will take us forward in a good way into the next 150 years.

The imperative of forging a new relationship with Indigenous peoples – a relationship based upon the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that Canada was built on the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples – but that our country came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were here first.

Canada is responsible for many colonial policies and legislation – most notably, and notoriously, the Indian Act.

Sadly the settlers thought that they and their ways were superior.
This is an inescapable truth.

Canada was founded on the colonial premise that consistently ignored and actively subjugated the distinct governments and laws, traditions, and the inherent rights of Indigenous people.

It has enforced laws, policies and practices that sought to eradicate Indigenous languages and cultures, to impose colonial traditions and ways of life.

It is important for me to explain to all Canadians what we lost when the settlers refused to respect First Nations.

What we lost when we refused to understand the importance of thinking seven generations out.

What we lost by  basing our health care on a medical model, a repair shop, instead of understanding the medicine wheel which focussed on keeping people well – emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

What we lost when the settlers refused to talk to the women, whose voices were so powerful in their communities, the women who always insisted that the needs of children has to be the priority in taking decisions in their communities.

What we lost by not respecting the Indigenous pedagogy of ‘learning by doing’. As Elder Rose reminded us, the land was her university.

What we lost by not respecting the wisdom of elders. What we lost by not understanding that true leadership is asking not telling.

What we lost from wrongheaded, racist policies that devastated communities and are still being felt today for the generations of children that were taken and the families and communities left behind.

We now name it - multi-generational trauma.

We ask for trauma-informed care - but we need to have the courage to speak about the direct link between child abuse - anger shame - drugs/alcohol - violence and suicide … incarceration.

Hurt people hurt people.

Elders have told us for years what we now have the empirical research to demonstrate: a secure personal cultural identity is essential for good health.... and for educational and economic outcomes.

And we all know that when people have a secure personal cultural identity, there are no bounds.

Their self-esteem, dignity and resilience is so evident.

The young, the youth, know what they need and how to get it …. We have to listen to them.

They are consistent - they want to be fluent speakers of their language, competent on the land and the water and the ice, they want a great education that will allow them to walk in both worlds.
They want their friends to have hope and be able to see a future in which Indigenous people are able to exercise their inherent rights.

They are totally inspiring.

As the Prime Minister says they are not just our future, they are our present.

They are committed –right now– to being part of building the capacity that will lead their communities to self-determination and self-government.

They are impatient. I know you are all impatient.

I am here to tell you that our government is impatient too.

We want to work with you to decolonize this country.

We want to work with you on the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

That means we are committed to working in partnership with Indigenous people to ensure Canada’s laws and policies live up to all the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We are committed to a new fiscal relationship that provides sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for First Nation communities – including no longer penalizing your communities for your own-source revenue.

With the leadership of the amazing Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Working Group of Ministers on the Review of Laws and Policies Related to Indigenous Peoples  is working to change government policies and approaches to truly reflect and respect Treaty and Aboriginal rights, Section 35 of the Constitution, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We recognize how much more work needs to be done.

We recognize that work that can only be done in full partnership with all of you.

We now must work together to design a framework in which inherent and Treaty rights can be protected outside the straight-jacket of the Indian Act.

This summer, the Prime Minister announced a bold change to address our shared impatience on the journey of reconciliation. He announced the dissolution of the colonial structure represented by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

In its place, the government is creating two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs which is under my responsibility; and Indigenous Services, under the responsibility of the truly wise and wonderful Minister Jane Philpott –a change that was  recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 20 years ago!

This is not about splitting the old INAC into two departments. Jane and I see this as literally redoubling the government’s efforts in our work in cooperation with First Nations. You will hear more from Jane tomorrow.

It is about creating something new – exciting new possibilities. Including new possibilities for the truly committed change agents within our department.…who had a major burden... they worked for INAC!

Yesterday we announced a major step in relieving that burden with the creation of the Department of Indigenous Services – which includes the transfer of for First Nations Inuit Health Branch from Health Canada over to the new department, under Dr. Philpott’s leadership.

In creating the 2 permanent new departments, we will need you help and wise counsel.....

As the architect’s mantra goes: Form must follow function.

We must continue the important work of engaging with First Nations leaders across the country to determine the structures and processes in the two new departments.
My engagements are also focusing on how Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs can accelerate progress towards self-determination, with an emphasis on reconstituting nations, and developing a framework for rights recognition and accountability for its implementation.

I know that you are also all concerned about the challenges and perspectives of Indigenous people who live off-reserve or in urban centres. We are committed to working with you to ensure that their voices are heard as well.

We’re approaching this transformative work with the mind frame of asking, not telling; with humility, not hubris.

We need to listen – then act.

These words continue to call for a profound shift in how the government works with First Nations people.

Words are not enough. As Grand Chief Willy Littlechild told the Prime Minister, we need Reconcili-Action.

Action that must be based upon a genuine respect for inherent and treaty rights.

We are inspired by all the Indigenous leadership working so hard – and sometimes for decades.... to achieve the self-determination that should never have been taken away.

We’re working very hard to get back to self-determination and self-government, based on how First Nations want to define and govern themselves and how you want your relationship with the Crown to look.

First Nations are now articulating how they wish to exercise their inherent and treaty rights.

As the beginning of Volume 2 RCAP, Regena Crowchild was quoted as saying:
When our peoples entered into treaties, there were nations of peoples. And people always wonder why, what is a nation? Because only nations can enter into treaties. [...] They had their own languages. They had their own spiritual beliefs. They had their own political institutions. They had the land base, and they possessed historic continuity on this land base.

[...] So, these treaties were entered into on a nation-to¬-nation basis.

They had their own languages, they had their own spiritual beliefs, they had their own political institutions, they had land base, they possessed historic continuity on this land base.

So these treaties were entered into on a nation to nation basis.

We know that we must not only honour the words of the treaties but the Honour of the Crown must also include all the spirit and good faith in which they were signed.

We must acknowledge the ongoing impact of Canada’s colonial past and then we need to be intentional about tearing those structures down and eliminating the paternalistic attitudes and policies that have become so deeply entrenched.

We need to get to a place where co-developing mandates, policies and processes is the norm, a place where Indigenous priorities are acknowledged to be on equal footing with Crown priorities.

Top down needs to be replaced with bottom up. Paternalism replaced by partnership.

During some consultations in North Winnipeg, a resident asked a very interesting question: “Why is it that poor people have programs and the middle class has institutions?”

He was right.

Canada must get out of the business of delivering programs to indigenous people.

We must work with you to build indigenous-led institutions and First Nations self-governments.

Where people are involved in the decisions affecting their communities, there are better outcomes.  

We look forward to the day – and Jane will tell you tomorrow – when the brand new Department of Indigenous Services will no longer exist.

A sense of control is clearly empowering. The evidence shows it.

Community well-being scores increase significantly for residents of self-governing first nations.

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

Fostering self-government and self-determination lies at the very heart of our government’s mandate. It lies at the very heart of closing the gap, and better outcomes for Indigenous Peoples.

Unfortunately, under current policies and processes, the federal government forces Indigenous peoples to go through arduous processes to prove that their rights exist.

No one should have to claim their rights.

Millions of dollars, decades of time, together with the frustrating and corrosive negative energy spent in adversarial processes and Court battles have eroded our relationship.

All of that time and money for the federal government to lose again and again in court!

There’s something terribly wrong with this picture.

It’s time to change the flawed Comprehensive Claims  and Specific Claims processes, beginning with their names, which do not reflect a recognition-based approach.

We, as government, must pursue a new inherent rights policy as well. And we need to do this with you as partners.

This work has already begun.

In 2015, we introduced what are now called Recognition of Indigenous Rights and Self-Determination discussions (formerly “exploratory tables”) with Indigenous groups across the country.

At a Rights Recognition table, Canada sits down with our partners and explores shared the priorities for meeting needs, advancing interests, fostering self-determination, and closing socioeconomic gaps.

These conversations are founded on 2 things...1) the recognition of Indigenous rights and 2) collaborative approaches to engagement.

Instead of trying to fit these goals into pre-determined federal policy boxes, we work together to co-develop preliminary understandings and negotiation mandates that work for Indigenous communities and nations.

So – what has this change in approach meant?

For one – it means we can get things done faster.

In the last nearly half-century, Canada has signed only 47 comprehensive land-claims or self-government agreements. This is not a pace for decolonizing that we are comfortable with….
What is exciting is that today, we are now in talks with 50 groups representing over 300 communities which are home to about half a million Indigenous peoples.

We are discussing ways in which communities can draw-down jurisdiction on issues such as the fishery, education, health care and child and family services. As the National Chief said, the urgent need to keep your children in your communities.

This new process is gaining huge momentum.

There are already 27 more groups that want to join – and we expect this number to rise quickly.

We are at a pivotal moment in our country where there is political will in Ottawa, active engagement in communities / and a genuine desire among Canadians to see things change.

Our goal now is to make the very most of the opportunity.

You’ll remember that I asked many of you at the last AFN AGA how many of you see yourselves still under the Indian Act 10 years from now?

We recognize that in order for more of you to be able to see self-determination as realistic for the future of your communities, federal policies and processes change to be more flexible. Governance models must be designed to evolve over time.

Concepts such as extinguishment and surrender have no place in the modern treaty process.

Federal policies have, in the past, looked to find ways for Indigenous peoples to permanently give up certain rights in exchange for money or land.

Communities were being asked to extinguish or surrender rights.

Our government doesn’t believe anyone should have to choose between their community’s well-being and their rights.

So we are taking extinguishment and surrender off the table for good.

And at our Recognition of Rights Tables we have already done that.

Instead of fixating on “full and final settlement,” we are focussed on the implementation of the spirit and intent of Aboriginal and Treaty rights as we mutually understand them today.

We are building into our agreements regular review provisions with an agreed-upon orderly process for amendment and enhancement.

Since Confederation, the Crown has taken Indigenous peoples’ authority over everything from governance and education, to individual affairs and housing. It’s time for you to exercise your sovereignty.

We are doing this not just because it’s the right thing to do – we are also pursuing this path because it simply produces better results for everyone.

This summer Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny told us that twenty years ago when the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia decided to take over their education system was the day he decided to become a teacher.

The high school graduation rate at the time was 30 per cent.

Today, the Mi’kmaq education system in Nova Scotia has a high-school graduation rate of about 90 per cent, which is higher than that of the non-Indigenous population in Canada.

Tomorrow – in the House of Commons – we will be bringing C-61 up for debate – this is the bill that will enshrine into law the Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement.

This is the largest self-government agreement in Canadian history in terms of the number of people who are a part of it.

Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee and the leaders from the member nations are planning to be on hand tomorrow for the momentous occasion – where, I believe, you will see rather respectful debate on the matter.

After all – we are talking about an agreement that was reached by consensus and has been accepted by a vote in 23 communities.

So why would Parliament try to change anything?

This is what recognition of rights, self-determination and reconciliation are all about.

Together we are working to a future in which healthy, prosperous, self-determining and self-governing Indigenous nations are driving a better future for Canada and all Canadians.

The work that we are doing now is laying the foundation for these changes – and undertaking the necessary groundwork so that our shared progress cannot be undone.

As you know Canada 150 has been a difficult year  for Indigenous people.

On July 1st, many Indigenous people felt there was little to celebrate in a century and a half of colonialism and racism and their ongoing damaging legacy.

Last year, at the NAC Secret Path concert, the late Gord Downie said "We've got 150 years behind us to learn from, and we've got 150 years ahead of us, and we'd better just get to work."

It is indeed time to 'just get to work'.

As we move towards Canada 151, it can be the time for all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike – to chart a new path together. To just get to work.

More and more Canadians are expressing their need to learn more, do more, be part of solutions on the journey of reconciliation.

So I'm looking forward to Canada 151 … The Prime Minister is challenging all of us to act upon our shared vision, values and willingness to take some risks.

As he says it's about hope and hard work.

That better is always possible.

I thank you all for your leadership, passion and dedication ….. you have convinced me that there can be no hope without the hard work.

No hope without the safe place to be honest with one another... where we welcome the corrections along the way.  We are in a relationship. This is a marriage, not a divorce.

I really do believe that BETTER that is truly possible and BETTER is within our grasp. We can do this together.

Thank you. Merci. Chi-Meegwetch.

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