Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde broke a two-year boycott to attend Tuesday’s Council of the Federation gathering in Big River First Nation, and he’s glad he did.
Bellegarde, who last attended the meetings since 2016, said it would be proper for a national chief to turn down this opportunity. After a day of meetings, cultural performances and gift-giving festivities, he’s pleased with the progress that was made.
“We can always keep reaching out (and) keeping building those relationships with the premiers and the federal government and with all people,” Bellegarde told reports during a press conference with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Big River First Nation Chief Bruce Morin. “It’s all about building a better country together. Nobody is going anywhere, so let’s roll up our sleeves and really talk about reconciliation.”
On Tuesday, those talks focus mostly on Indigenous child and youth policies, ranging from education to poverty to foster care systems. While no concrete policies came out of Tuesday’s four-hour meetings, Bellegarde said he’s encouraged by what he heard from provincial leaders.
The next step will be critical, he said, and he encouraged all premiers in attendance to start consulting with Indigenous leaders in their home provinces and territories. Without that step, he said it’s going to be difficult to develop good policy.
“It’s going to vary from province to province,” Bellegarde said. “They’re all at different levels (and) they’re all at different capacities. It’s different. One size will not fit all. I just encourage them to begin that (consultation) process sooner rather than later.”
First Nations, Metis and Inquit youth have been a regular topic of discussion in Ottawa. In April, parliament passed Bill C-92, which sets out national principals governing child and family services provisions for Indigenous children.
Bellegarde said he’s glad to see the bill receive royal assent, but he also urged the Premiers in attendance not to let that progress slip away. He’s confident, however, that most premiers are on board with plans to improve the lives of Indigenous youth across the country.
“Hopefully the numbers will come down because that’s what it’s all about and you can only do that by communicating, collaborating and working together,” he said. “I’m going say there were a lot of nodding heads around that table, but we will see.”
While all 13 provincial and territorial leaders were invited to Tuesday’s gathering in Big River, only 9 showed, the most notable absentee being Ontario premier Doug Ford.
Although Bellegard called the meeting in Big River a “historic occasion,” he wasn’t deterred by the lack of participation from some provincial leaders.
“People make choices every day,” he said. “You go with what you have and you build upon what you have, so next year it will get better.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was equally pleased with Tuesday’s discussions, which will continue today and tomorrow in Saskatoon.
Moe said he’s confident Saskatchewan’s child and family services agreements with provincial tribal councils are working. However, he also added that there’s room for improvement.
Although no direct policy initiatives or changes came out of Tuesday’s meetings, Moe was adamant they were on the right path when it came to policies covering the health and well-being of Indigenous youth.
“The work is underway and the goals are the same,” Moe told reporters. “Like Chief Bellegarde says, the closer we can work together (the better). As we move forward, keeping the focus on the well-being of the children and families most certainly is paramount.”
The Council of the Federation (CoF) meetings are held twice a year as a forum for Canadian premiers to engage with each other on critical issues. The 2019 event in Big River was the first time the CoF visited an Indigenous community.
“This has never happened before in Canada when the Premiers come out to a first nation reserve, (and) that was number one why I wanted to be here,” Bellegarde said.
A report released in June 2013 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children Canada showed that roughly 50 per cent of status First Nations youth live in poverty. That number increases to 64 per cent in Saskatchewan, who had the highest rates of First Nation youth poverty in the country. Manitoba was second with 62 per cent. The study used census data from 2006 because data from the 2011 survey wasn’t yet available.
Other Indigenous groups who attended Tuesday’s meeting include the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the FSIN.