The good news for Albertans is that Premier Jason Kenney isn’t feeling pessimistic after his meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The bad news is that he’s not exactly feeling optimistic either.
“Realistic,” is how he put it when speaking to reporters after the lengthy chat in the prime minister’s office on Tuesday, which lasted for more than an hour.
Kenney’s demeanour was an obvious contrast to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who came out of his meeting with Trudeau nearly a month ago fuming about how disappointed he was. Kenney, on the other hand, mentioned several times that he appreciates Trudeau’s willingness to listen to his concerns.
“We had a very frank conversation about the ongoing economic crisis in Alberta and the impact that has on the Canadian prosperity and, frankly, the unity of our country as well,” said Kenney. “I appreciate that the prime minster listened and seemed to be responsive on a number of points.”
The Alberta premier had a number of big requests for Trudeau, with the most important being a firm commitment on when the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be completed. With the Alberta economy still recovering from a deep economic decline, the extra barrels of oil the pipeline will move to the Pacific coast have become the dominant issue in the province.
Kenney had no firm date to announce after the meeting, but Trudeau did note that shovels are already in the ground and construction is underway on the pipeline.
Kenney also wants changes to the federal fiscal stabilization fund, which provides extra money to provinces experiencing a short-term economic decline. He told Trudeau he wants the cap on the program lifted and $2.4 billion worth of retroactive payments to Alberta to make up for being shortchanged during the recent recession.
Kenney has been referring to it as an “equalization rebate” and a way for the federal government to show it appreciates Alberta’s outsized contributions to the federal coffers. Last week, all the provinces agreed to raise the issue with Trudeau.
“We already got unanimity across the country. Miracles will never cease,” said Kenney.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau said on Monday that he is open to listening to the concerns of the provinces on fiscal stabilization when the provincial finance ministers meet on Monday. Kenney said he received “no specific guarantee” on tweaks to the program, other than a willingness to look at it.
A recent surge in Western alienation also dominated the meeting.
Kenney told reporters that he urged Trudeau to take the concerns of Albertans seriously, citing poll numbers showing that a third of the province saying they’d be better off splitting from Canada than staying in the federation.
“The prime minister agrees that we must not ignore those sentiments,” said Kenney, who has repeatedly noted that Albertans feel unappreciated and neglected by the rest of the federation.
Kenney also lobbied for the federal approval of the massive Frontier Mine oil sands project proposed by Teck Resources and suggested that this “simple ratification” would be a litmus test for Albertans wondering if their federal government has got their back.
“The next few weeks will be critical in determining the seriousness of this federal government to respond to the deep and legitimate concerns in Western Canada,” said Kenney, saying he needed urgent action from the federal government ahead of the February deadline for approval.
Trudeau told Kenney that he’s aware of the deadline and that the federal government is working on the file with that in mind.
“I am somebody who always tries to be hopeful but that’s hard for a lot of Albertans who have been out of work for four years,” said Kenney.
Also on the list of issues that Kenney brought to Ottawa is a request to rewrite Bill C-69, which modified environmental assessments for large energy projects, and a complete scrapping of the government’s tanker ban law, which effectively bans Canadian oil exports from B.C.’s north coast.
Kenney expressed some optimism on Bill C-69.
“While the prime minster is not going to repeal the bill, as we would prefer, he did agree to work with us on its application, on the regulations and on the project list,” said Kenney. “So on a number of issues he’s indicated an openness and we appreciate that but we will be continuing to push our vital economic interests with vigour.”
OTTAWA — The Federal Court has rejected a request from Ottawa to press pause on a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering compensation for First Nations children who were unnecessarily removed from their families and communities due to underfunding of the on-reserve child welfare system.
The decision means the federal government will have to submit a plan to the tribunal by Jan. 29, 2020 detailing how compensation could be paid out. However, Ottawa will continue to fight the tribunal’s ruling in court, arguing there are flaws in its decision.
The government maintains it does want to compensate First Nations children who suffered due to underfunding of child and family services. On Monday, federal ministers announced Ottawa is looking to negotiate compensation through a separate class-action lawsuit that would cover a larger number of people than the tribunal ruling.
“Nothing changes our strong belief that we must compensate First Nations children harmed by past government policies,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller’s office told the National Post in a statement on Friday. “We will continue to seek a solution that will provide comprehensive, fair and equitable compensation for First Nations children in care.”
The case concerns a human rights complaint initially filed in 2007 by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations. In September, the tribunal found the government wilfully and recklessly discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding child and family services on reserve and in the Yukon, which created an incentive to remove Indigenous children from their homes and communities. It found each child who was unnecessarily taken into care starting on Jan. 1, 2006 is entitled to $40,000 in compensation.
It also ruled the government should pay compensation to parents and grandparents and to Indigenous children who were denied essential services covered under Jordan’s principle, which states that the needs of First Nations children should take precedence over jurisdictional disputes about who should pay for them.
The government filed a legal challenge of the decision in October, and also asked the Federal Court to stay the ruling pending the outcome of that judicial review.
We will continue to seek a solution that will provide comprehensive, fair and equitable compensation
A hearing on the motion to stay was held in Ottawa earlier this week. On Friday, Federal Court Justice Paul Favel denied Ottawa’s request to put the process on hold, finding there would be no harm in the government discussing a compensation plan with the other parties. He pointed out that Canada doesn’t yet have to pay out compensation — it just has to make a plan.
“I’m pleased with it, because it allows the tribunal to continue with its work on the compensation process, so that’s the most important thing,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society, in an interview.
She said the decision brings First Nations children one step closer to receiving compensation, but added that Canada continues to throw up roadblocks. “Are they going to stop fighting and do the right thing for kids, or are they going to continue to fight?” she said. “In which case, we will meet them in every courtroom.”
The tribunal originally ordered the parties to submit a compensation plan by Dec. 10, but this week pushed that deadline back to Jan. 29. In a letter on Wednesday, the tribunal wrote that the approaching deadline and Canada’s refusal to enter into discussions left it feeling “cornered.” There is no set date when Ottawa would have to start paying compensation.
During the hearing on Monday, a Justice Department lawyer argued the tribunal’s decision was flawed in part because it ordered the government to pay each child the same amount — the maximum $40,000 in compensation the tribunal is allowed to award. Robert Frater argued the decision took a “one-size-fits-all” approach that didn’t make distinctions “based on harms actually experienced.” He estimated the ruling would require payment of at least $5 or $6 billion.
Frater also argued the decision forces Canada to “take a piecemeal approach to settling,” because the ruling only affects Indigenous people who were involved in the child welfare system since 2006.
In contrast, the class-action lawsuit the government wants to settle covers children affected by the underfunding of child and family services dating back to 1991, but not their parents.
However, the Caring Society argues the children covered by the tribunal ruling shouldn’t have to wait longer simply because others also suffered. “If we wait for perfection, we’ll be back here again and again and again and again, and we’ll never have a solution,” said Barbara McIsaac, a lawyer for the Caring Society, during Monday’s hearing.
The Caring Society had sought to have the judicial review put on hold until the tribunal has issued another order with details about the compensation process. But Favel denied that motion as well, meaning both the tribunal process and the legal challenge seeking to have it overturned will proceed simultaneously.
CALGARY — A wry smile briefly crosses Lee Crowchild’s careworn face when the word “alienation” is mentioned.
He hears this particular word from so many lips these days in Alberta. It’s the place where he was born, so he understands well enough those long-standing strains and issues that exist between the province and Ottawa. However, today that age-old mistrust is blossoming anew, leading to murmurings of mutiny and separation.
Still, when it comes to alienation, Crowchild believes Indigenous people have a veritable stranglehold on what that really entails. After all, he is descended from a long line of native leaders on the western Prairies, reaching back to Alberta’s formative years as a province.
Crowchild was, until very recently, chief of the Tsuuut’ina, a First Nation of more than 2,000 residents who live in the eastern shadow of the mighty Rocky Mountains and cheek by jowl to the ultra-modern city of Calgary. (He was still chief when he was interviewed for this story, having been elected in 2016, but lost his bid for re-election on Nov. 20th) Crowchild’s dad once held that same chief mantle, as did his grandfather, after whom one of the adjoining city’s major thoroughfares, Crowchild Trail, is respectfully named.
His perspective on the recent uprising of separatist fervour in the province — Wexit being its nametag on social media — remains guarded, being grounded in both history and culture.
“Today you hear talk about alienation. But this is how we have been living through the generations. So now you are crying to be heard? So yes, it is a bit amusing,” he says.
Today you hear talk about alienation. But this is how we have been living through the generations. So now you are crying to be heard?
But such amusement quickly vanishes when he contemplates what might happen if Alberta did indeed try to separate from Canada, as an increasing number of people in the province are discussing.
This comes not from some heartfelt love his people feel for Ottawa: far from it. But Crowchild looks to history. The treaties in place with the Crown might not be perfect, but they have legal status. So, to disavow those, on the vague hope of something better? That is not an easy sell on the Tsuuut’ina reserve.
“This movement called Wexit, the Alberta one to leave Canada, is fine, but they’d have to leave the land behind and its resources as well. We didn’t sign those treaties to give them away. That is under the NRTA,” he says.
Crowchild refers to the 1930 Natural Resources Transfer Agreement, one in which Alberta has a constitutional obligation to transfer back to Canada any unoccupied Crown lands necessary to allow Canada to fulfill its treaty obligations with First Nations.
“No one ever talks to the First Nations about this. Some people now feel discriminated against by the federal government and they suppose they are talking on our behalf,” says Crowchild.
“They are not. We’re still invisible. Our frustration goes back a long way, to the time of colonization, that’s where our frustration started,” he adds.
But further north, in the very heart of the Alberta oilsands, there’s more sympathy for provincial frustrations among Indigenous people, many of whom work in the energy and mining industries.
Ron Quintal is president of the Fort McKay Metis, a group that, in May, became the first such one in Canada to declare self-governance. This was after they successfully bought from the province last year the 199 hectares of land they live on just north of Fort McMurray — another first for a Metis organization.
“In Fort McKay we sit basically on an island surrounded by (oilsands) mines,” Quintal says. “From our perspective we have been very much involved in the development of natural resources in northern Alberta and we see Alberta energy as a huge benefit to the rest of Canada. ”
“So, coming out of the federal election, a lot of Indigenous folk feel just as alienated as your everyday Albertan,” he says.
However, aspects of the burgeoning Wexit movement raise uneasy issues for Quintal and many others in the region.
“With the Wexit movement — and it is a very strong movement right now — if you read the comments from some of the people involved it is really disheartening to Indigenous people.” He says he hears undercurrents of racism and stereotyping about First Nations people, some of whom (but definitely not all of whom) have been vocal in their opposition Alberta’s oilsands and pipeline projects.
“That is why there is cautionary talk when Indigenous folk see and hear that sort of thing,” Quintal says. “That is not to say we could not be supportive of moving away from Canada. But the issue is that there are treaties that would stall all type of move away from federalism. You cannot ignore that; you have to take Indigenous folk into consideration.”
“Ultimately folk here, for the most part, just want to get by, just like everyone else in society. So what we see is an opportunity to have a really serious conversation, not just with alienation involving Ottawa, but as well with the government here in Alberta.”
“Perhaps, if there is a separation movement, then there is also an opportunity to evolve with it and take Indigenous groups into the 21st century,” added Quintal.
Like many others in Alberta he remains frustrated by some of the common misconceptions about the oilsands region.
“People think we are polluting the rivers and polluting the land, but the fact is the riverbeds and the landscape has always had the oilsands in them.”
“We used to use the tar to waterproof canoes. It has always been there and is still there. If you walk into the MacKay River you get tar on your feet: not because it is coming from an oilsands development, but because it is here naturally. Many Canadians don’t grasp that,” he added.
JP Gladu, president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, says that the connection many First Nations people have to Alberta’s resource industry has made them feel just as frustrated as other Albertans are with the obstructionism and lack of support from Ottawa.
“Indigenous businesses are more aligned in Alberta than anywhere else in how they are feeling about the federal government and their mistreatment,” says Gladu.
As president of the Aboriginal business council, he has worked closely with oil and gas companies across Alberta to get more Indigenous firms and individuals involved in the energy business. He says that some of those based in the oilsands have been among the most forward thinking in Canada in terms of working with First Nations.
“Mark Little, the CEO of Suncor, has been a champion of champions,” Gladu says. “He has come out a number of times challenging other corporations to do better in their relationship with Indigenous peoples.”
However, Gladu reiterated that the treaties binding Canada and its relations with Indigenous people couldn’t be ignored.
“You can’t simply separate and think that Indigenous people will just come with you. Our relationship is with the federal government and not the provincial Crown. Our treaties actually bind the entire country, to a degree,” he says.
Our treaties actually bind the entire country, to a degree
However, Gladu believes there may be an ironic aspect to the current alienation and distrust between the federal government and Alberta. He sees a possibility to allow Indigenous groups to step forward as a solution, to become an honest broker between the two levels of government.
That is why he is so supportive of the recent move by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to offer loan guarantees totaling $1 billion to First Nations businesses involved in major energy projects. Gladu sees in the funding one of the ways forward.
“Most Canadians don’t realize that the majority of Indigenous communities actually want to see resource development, because we are tied of living on the fringes and not benefiting from such development.”
“So there is a fantastic credibility and positivity that comes to the table when you bring in Indigenous leaders to co-develop resources. I think that could be the way that pipelines get built, for example.”
“This offers our country an opportunity to allow us to be real equal participants. It could come full circle so we absolutely have a crucial role in binding our country based on our treaties and, as honest brokers, to develop projects together.”
“Economic reconciliation is the stuff we talk about all the time. It is such an opportunity. I think we have a crucial role to play in it,” added Gladu.
In a country striving for reconciliation with its First Nation peoples it would be ironic indeed if those same Indigenous people were a catalyst to help reconcile the federal government and the West.