By Susana Mas, CBC News Posted: Jul 12, 2016 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Jul 12, 2016 3:52 PM ET
The Assembly of First Nations signed an agreement with the RCMP on Tuesday to address racism and discrimination within the force as the two sides look for new ways to improve relations ahead of the federal government’s much-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“We invited the commissioner back again … to be part of this MOU … about how can we work together to deal with issues, deal with all those misconceptions that are within the police,” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde as the AFN kicked off its three-day annual general meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont.
The memorandum of understanding comes just over six months after RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson openly admitted during the Special Chiefs in Assembly last December there are “racists” inside his police force.
Paulson told First Nations chiefs Tuesday: “I couldn’t deny it existed, but I can tell you unequivocally that while it may exist, there is no room, there is no place for it to remain.”
CBCNews.ca is livestreaming the AFN three-day meeting.
AFN 37th Annual General Assembly
Schedule of events include (all times Eastern):
- 10:15 a.m.: AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
- 10:35 a.m.: Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
- 11:30 a.m.: RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and Bellegarde.
- 12:15 p.m.: Bellegarde holds news conference.
- 2:30 p.m.: Health Minister Jane Philpott.
- 2:45 p.m.: Indigenous youth.
While the government is not expected to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women during the assembly, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told First Nations chiefs it is “very close” to making that announcement.
Bellegarde said an inquiry will force police to answer some difficult questions about its own shortcomings.
“When the inquiry is announced, be prepared, because you will come under question and focus about why did you not put more resources into these things upon investigation… why was there not more respect for the families, why was there not more communication? All these things are going to come out.”
“There is still a lot of hurt, still a lot of pain with the families that are still looking for closure,” Bellegarde said.
The national chief said the launch of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women could come later this month, or next month.
Paulson said the RCMP was committed to solving all outstanding cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and help families still looking for answers.
RCMP to address discrimination
“The protocol that we are committing to today promises to build on all of the work we have been doing to be a more respectful organization,” Paulson said on Tuesday.
“It also calls on the RCMP to address issues of discrimination that affect our interactions with First Nations communities.”
Paulson said while today’s agreement is “a very important step” in improving RCMP relations with the AFN and Canada’s Indigenous communities, he acknowledged the force would have to do more than just put “words on paper.”
“I’m here today to pledge that we will put action to these words, so we can continue the healing, continue the building and improve these vital relationships in every way possible.”
Paulson spoke of the impact the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had on him personally and the light it shed on the work required from the RCMP.
“We know reconciliation will require much work on our part, but I need you to help us.”
He said today’s agreement also commits the RCMP to increase beyond eight per cent the current representation of Indigenous peoples within the force.
“While that’s a number I think I can be proud of, it just isn’t enough,” Paulson said adding that “to truly be a culturally competent organization, we must and we will increase that number.”
First Nations ‘gaining momentum’
In his opening remarks, Bellegarde said Indigenous communities are “gaining momentum” — the theme of this year’s general assembly.
“It doesn’t mean all of our issues have been solved. But what it does mean is that, for the first time in a very long time, there is reason to believe that we are on the cusp of great change,” Bellegarde said.
“But it will take all of us, working together, to make it real for everyone.”
Bellegarde said the AFN also signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government “to create a new fiscal relationship, one based on real needs.”
The AFN signed the MOU with Bennett to form a working group to advise the government on how it should move forward with funding for Indigenous communities.
Bennett said the Trudeau government was committed to “removing the irritants from previous years that poisoned the relationship and set back progress by a decade.”
Moving beyond the Indian Act
The Indian Act, the primary legislation used by the federal government to administer everything from laws to membership and elections in First Nation communities, was the subject of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s remarks to the general assembly on Tuesday.
Wilson-Raybould made the case for moving beyond the Indian Act telling First Nations chiefs it would not be as easy as “ripping it up.”
“Rather than popping the balloon that is the Indian Act,” Canada’s attorney general said, it’s better to “let the air out slowly.”
Wilson-Raybould, who was a regional chief for the AFN before she was elected as an MP in last fall’s federal election, said “it will be controversial, but absolutely necessary.”
First Nations to benefit from Hydro One shares
The AFN general assembly began with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day announcing that First Nations communities in Ontario will benefit from the sale of Hydro One shares.
“As of 9 a.m. this morning, the province of Ontario has entered into an agreement in principle will all 133 First Nations communities to sell 15 million shares of Hydro One for our collective benefit,” Day said in his opening remarks.
Some eight months ago, Ontario began the biggest sell-off of a Canadian crown corporation in 20 years.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the AFN’s Special Chiefs in Assembly meeting, his office told CBC he will not be at the general assembly in Niagara Falls this week.
Bellegrade said he hoped the prime minister would attend one of two AFN meetings each year, noting that the next gathering will take place from Dec. 6-8 in Gatineau, Que.