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Former TRC commissioner proposes path for Ottawa to avoid showdown over Indigenous rights bill

A former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says Ottawa should base its proposed Indigenous rights framework on a First Nations-drafted law as a starting point.

Wilton Littlechild, who is now grand chief of Treaty 6 in Alberta, said he believes there’s still time to take advantage of the federal Liberal government’s desire to pass legislation to implement Indigenous rights — affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution — in federal law.

However, given the stakes, Littlechild said Ottawa should be basing their proposal on a First Nations-drafted law instead of the other way around.

“This is about us, this is about our rights,” said Littlechild, in an interview with CBC News.

“This is critically important in terms of the survival and dignity of Indigenous Peoples.”

Littlechild was one of three authors who signed a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Aug. 21 calling for a hard reset of Ottawa’s process to develop the recognition of Indigenous rights framework.

“The consultation process was flawed,” said Littlechild.

Littlechild said he understood the deep concerns many leaders have, but remained “optimistic” the framework could be a success within Ottawa’s self-imposed deadline if First Nations seized the moment.

“Opportunities like the one in front of us come rarely and sometimes few and far between,” said Littlechild. “I think we have a short window.”

Grassroots resistance mobilizing

The process has been led by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, whose department released a document this month outlining the government’s thinking following five months of discussions. It was widely criticized by First Nations leaders at a two-day forum this week on the framework in Gatineau, Que., that was hosted by the Assembly of First Nations.

Bob Chamberlain, chief councillor for Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation in B.C., called the document “borderline offensive.”

The document gave momentum to leaders who were already against Ottawa’s proposed framework.

Chiefs from Ontario held a news conference Wednesday to announce they were planning to organize a grassroots resistance to the framework, which Ottawa hopes to table before Christmas and pass before next fall’s election.

Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Grand Chief Joel Abram, surrounded by chiefs from Ontario, during a news conference Wednesday announcing opposition to Ottawa’s proposed Indigenous rights recognition framework.(CBC)

Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians deputy Grand Chief Gord Peters said the framework failed on a number of fronts, including on issues around lands, resources and dealing with the provinces.

Peters said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould should also have met with chiefs during the forum since she was the “master architect” of the proposed framework.

“There is no recognition of our inherent rights,” said Peters. “It’s something we have to stop … at all costs.”

Former AFN national chief candidate Russ Diabo also announced grassroots resistance work would soon begin through Idle No More networks using webinars and teach-ins.

“It can’t be fixed,” said Diabo, a Mohawk policy analyst from Kahnawake.

Peters and Diabo said a “day of prayer” was being planned for Sept. 17.

B.C. leaders developing proposal

Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Grand Chief Ghislain Picard issued a statement Wednesday calling for a complete reset of the framework process. Picard also raised concerns about the role of the provinces in the framework, which Ottawa’s documents say won’t be touched by the proposed legislation.

B.C. First Nations Summit Grand Chief Ed John said chiefs needed to bring proposals to the table on Indigenous rights recognition framework.(CBC)

Still, there were some voices from British Columbia who said the opportunity to create a foothold for section 35 rights in federal law should not be squandered, despite Ottawa bumbling through the opening stages.

“We don’t trust the government. We have no reason to. We are skeptical of what they are putting forward and we have every right to be,” said B.C. First Nations Summit Grand Chief Ed John, in a speech.

“So what do we propose?” said John, who also signed the Aug. 21 letter to Trudeau.

The B.C. delegation picked up on Littlechild’s suggestion that First Nations draft their own law, said Cheryl Casimer, a political executive with the B.C. First Nations Summit.

Casimer said B.C. has already developed drafting directions for Ottawa to mould the proposed framework, which was shared with other leaders this week, and is planning more meetings to fine tune the document.

Casimer said it would be in the minister’s interest to accept First Nations-driven proposals as a starting point for the framework if she wants to avoid failure on the file.

Feds open to amending legislation after tabling

Bennett’s office said in a statement it had already received several “submissions on legislative and policy components” and that it welcomed more.

The statement said the government was also open to amending the proposed legislation after it was tabled through the parliamentary process.

“We expect that both House of Commons and Senate committees will choose to examine the legislation carefully and receive even more input from Indigenous Peoples throughout the country,” said the statement.

Chiefs said they planned to discuss the issue with their home communities and return to a special chiefs meeting in December to decide if a national position was possible on the framework.

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