Chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations voted Thursday to publicly oppose the Liberal government’s proposed gun-control legislation and stand against sovereignty bills in Alberta and Saskatchewan’s legislatures.
All three bills would infringe on treaty rights, the First Nations leaders said.
An amendment to Bill C-21, which is currently being debated by members of Parliament, aims to create an evergreen definition for “assault-style” weapons and enshrine it in law, allowing the government to ban hundreds of models of firearms.
Some First Nations leaders say they’re concerned to see rifles used for hunting on the list and voted to take a stand against the bill, which they say infringes on their treaty rights.
“We totally oppose this bill,” Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg told the gathering.
He says these guns are a “tool,” not a weapon.
The AFN, a national advocacy organization representing more than 600 First Nations across the country, had previously raised concerns about the legislation’s potential effects on hunting rights at a meeting of the House of Commons committee that is studying the bill.
On Thursday, chiefs carried an emergency resolution that was brought to the floor with unanimous support at their special assembly. It called on the AFN to push the government to make changes to the bill, including ensuring that long guns used by First Nations hunters do not fall under the ban, and improve its consultations with affected groups.
Chiefs also voted in favour of supporting First Nations in Saskatchewan in their opposition to the Saskatchewan First Act tabled by Saskatchewan Party Premier Scott Moe.
And the assembly affirmed that Indigenous leaders in Alberta could count on its support in their fight against the province’s own Sovereignty Act, introduced last week by United Conservative Party Premier Danielle Smith.
After delivering a speech to the assembly on his government’s commitments to reconciliation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed on the issue. A representative from Onion Lake Cree Nation, located near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, asked why the federal government, as a signatory to treaties, wasn’t doing more to oppose such legislation.
“We are extremely concerned about what the Sovereignty Act in Alberta and Bill 88 in Saskatchewan represent in terms of challenges to treaty rights that are fundamental in Canada and need to be respected,” Trudeau told the chiefs.
He added that provincial governments can pass laws that his government disagrees with, but the way to challenge them is through the courts, not in the political ring.
On the topic of guns, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who also spoke at the event on Thursday, told reporters that he respects the AFN’s right to voice concerns with legislation.
“This is not an easy debate, no matter what your perspective or your background,” he said. “This is an emotional debate.”
Mendicino repeated that the law is designed to keep weapons such as the AR-15 out of people’s hands — not to target rifles used by Indigenous hunters.
Asked about the possibility that hunters’ guns could be removed from the government’s proposed definition of banned firearms, the minister deferred to the MPs who are still studying the bill.
He said he’s open to more debate on the matter and respects the parliamentary process. “I think we can move forward and I think that the AFN, I hope, contemplates that.”
Earlier, in his address to the crowd, Mendicino noted that Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by gun violence.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who also addressed chiefs earlier in the day, told them he shares their concerns about the gun legislation’s effect on treaty rights.
“Any amendment that in any way contravenes your treaty rights is an amendment that we will not support,” Singh said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who is one of the most vocal critics of the bill and the amendment, didn’t appear in person to deliver his first message to the chiefs as party leader. His office said he was out of town.
Instead, Poilievre provided a short video, in which he spoke about his support for helping nations achieve economic reconciliation. It was played before chiefs were set to debate a set of resolutions regarding residential school survivors.
After the video ended, a few boos could be heard from the audience. Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod walked to a microphone in the room and pleaded with organizers to “not ever again put a video like that ahead of our residential school survivors,” which earned applause from the crowd.
—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press