AFN national chief relays a message of positivity to open general assembly

Tuesday, July 9th, 2024 3:07pm


Image Caption

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak addresses the general assembly July 9.


“The message is if you want to win in this country, you have to start (listening) to First Nations… You have to start embracing this national movement to reconciliation and not oppose it."
By Deb Steel

The 45th annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was brought to order on July 9 and, in the spirit of this year’s theme of “Strengthening Our Relations”, National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak had delegates stand and shake the hands of the people around them.

The move was met with joy and laughter.

“That was good,” said a smiling Woodhouse Nepinak. “I think after COVID, I think we realize how important it is to be together and to work with each other and to talk with each other.”

Woodhouse Nepinak went on to give an uplifting 33-minute speech filled with hope and inspiration. While the speech hit on wide-ranging initiatives, it was rooted in celebration of First Nations individuals, communities and their accomplishments.

The speech commemorated those leaders of the past who had led First Nations to their present strength, even going back to alliances of the 18th and 19th centuries. The National Chief acknowledged communities of today that had achieved recent successes on a multitude of fronts. And she commended others who were demonstrating “fearlessness” in the struggles still before First Nations.

Woodhouse Nepinak also dropped a hint of a proposed settlement issued yesterday by the federal government on long-term reform of the “broken child welfare system”. She couldn’t be completely candid on the dollar figure put forward because of “settlement privilege”, but “it’s a very significant offer, chiefs,” she said.

(Update: In a press conference on July 11 the Assembly of First Nations national chief stated the amount of the proposed draft final agreement is $47.8-billion over 10 years. Read a press statement here:…)

Regional chiefs had met that morning to discuss the offer and would talk about it within regional caucuses privately. Regional engagement sessions would soon be organized, she said, so views and recommendations from First Nations will be heard. A special chiefs’ assembly on the issue will also be held in Winnipeg in September.

“It will be up to you whether that proceeds or not… It is a fair offer that will benefit the generations for our children. I believe it will,” Woodhouse Nepinak said. “I think it’s a fair offer. And let’s never lose sight about what this is all about. It’s about our children, about our future. The bottom line is that First Nations families are best positioned to care for our own children and this country has to take notice of that.”

National Chief did put a caveat on the offer, however, saying First Nations could not take anything for granted. The offer is in hand, but there’s still a minority government in Ottawa and this creates uncertainty.

This offer comes on the heels of a “historic turning point, last year, with the largest compensation settlement in the history of this country,” $23.34 billion for approximately 300,000 First Nations children, youth and families. A Windspeaker story on this settlement here:…

Woodhouse Nepinak said the AFN had also secured a commitment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to give a formal apology in the House of Commons on the generations of discrimination suffered by First Nations families and children harmed by the child welfare system. She said First Nations across the country will be consulted on what that apology might include.

Woodhouse Nepinak was generous with her acknowledgements throughout her speech. She recognized attendee Manon Jeannotte, a member of the Gespeg Mi'kmaq First Nation and the newly-installed lieutenant governor of Quebec, the first First Nations woman to hold the post.

“We are proud of you,” said National Chief.

Woodhouse Nepinak also commended the recently-elected First Nations premier of Manitoba, Wab Kinew, who she said has been a steadfast ally in addressing the issues surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), and who should be held up as a role model for other Canadian first ministers in the approach to reconciliation with First Nations.

There was condemnation for colonial governments and their efforts in advancing the 231 Calls for Justice from the MMIWG national inquiry. An AFN evaluation of the progress found only two of those calls had been fully implemented, said Woodhouse Nepinak. The majority of the calls showed little or no progress.

“This failure by provincial and federal governments is not acceptable to our people. I hope it’s not acceptable for other Canadians either,” Woodhouse Nepinak said. She called on those Canadians to stand with Indigenous peoples on the issue.

“Substantive action is needed now more than ever to guarantee safety for First Nations women, girls and gender diverse people,” she said.

One concern that the AFN is actively engaged in is to end “the RCMP’s damaging effort to destroy the Pickton evidence.” Serial killer Robert Pickton died in prison on May 31. He was believed to have killed 26 women, many of whom were Indigenous, but was only convicted of six. He confessed to 49 murders, however.

“Things need to get better in this country,” Woodhouse Nepinak said.

“We will never stop fighting for you,” she said, addressing the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and their advocates.

“The murders and violence have not stopped…

“That’s why we have not stopped lobbying the federal and provincial governments to search for our lost sisters in the Prairie Green Landfill in Winnipeg.”

She commended Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick and Anishinaabe Premier Kinew for leading the process for the search of the landfill and for seeking justice for the families of the women whose remains are suspected to be there.

“And what a difference a premier can make,” said the national chief. Other premiers, however, are not supportive of First Nations priorities, said Woodhouse Nepinak, including First Nations policing needs and jurisdiction over policing.

Woodhouse Nepinak also spoke of the challenges still faced in closing the housing and infrastructure gap in First Nations, with $349 billion in investments required. The recent federal budget, she said, failed on these fronts.

Woodhouse Nepinak called for the decolonization of the Canadian economy to achieve economic reconciliation and to make room for the First Nations economy.

“Poverty and the restraint of trade are central pieces of the Indian Act. Doors are closed to our people and our traditional gifts of intertribal trade and self-sufficiency were replaced with poverty and lack of hope.”

She’s calling on $100 billion in loan guarantees to ensure First Nations’ “meaningful” inclusion in the more than $500 billion in projects, primarily in the resource sector, that will be launched on the traditional lands of First Nations in the coming decade.

Canada’s economy is expected to benefit in the trillions of dollars in the decades to come, she said.

“These projects will not advance without First Nations’ support. And that’s the truth.”

She said the AFN is prepared to work with any government, regardless of political stripe, that is aligned with First Nations priorities, beliefs and vision.

Woodhouse drew attention to another federal government proposition.

“We call for the withdrawal of Bill C-53”, legislation that would recognize some Métis governments in Canadian law. First Nations have objected strenuously to the bill, and particularly to the Métis Nation of Ontario’s claims to historic communities across the province.

Bill C-53, stalled currently in Canada’s parliament, fails to respect the perspectives and consultation requirement for the First Nations it would affect, said Woodhouse Nepinak.

“Bill C-53 must be withdrawn,” she said to applause.

The national chief looked back on the first months after her election in December 2023. She talked about the importance of the AFN as an organization, commenting on the thousands of people attending in person and online.

“It’s nice to see the AFN alive and well again,” she said, perhaps referring to the years previous where battles within the organization’s leadership pushed required initiatives off the agenda over and over.

“I don’t think the AFN is going anywhere soon and I think that we’re stronger than ever together. Do we have things to work out? Absolutely,” said Woodhouse Nepinak. But she was optimistic and excited about the future. Through unity and respect there would be lasting impacts for First Nations, she said.

“We see hope in communities that we visit. We see hope in this room. And I think back to how far we have come together. About what things were like when I started working for First Nations as a young person in these back rooms working for many of our chiefs.”

She said she remembers a poll 25 years ago that showed the low public opinion that average Canadians thought of First Nations, and a Macleans magazine article a number of years ago that described Manitoba as the most racist province in Canada.

“And now we have a First Nations premier leading the way there. I’m so proud of him.”

Canadian political parties need to take note, said Woodhouse Nepinak.

“In the 2023 Manitoba election the losing party campaigned against reconciliation, they opposed searching a landfill for missing First Nations women, and suggested crime would rise if a First Nations for premier was elected. People from all walks of life rejected that party…

“The message is if you want to win in this country, you have to start (listening) to First Nations…. You have to start embracing this national movement to reconciliation and not oppose it. With each day, more Canadians understand that First Nations' success is Canada’s success.”

She said there is a positive shift in that relationship with Canadians.

“This week at this assembly, let’s get the business done for the Nations that we serve. Let’s share ideas, debate, have dialogue. Let’s use this opportunity to reflect on our achievements and set the path forward…

“The strength of the Assembly of First Nations is in the strength of our diversity and our unity. Our foundations are strong, and our history is stronger. If we are to prevail, we must remember our teachings and ceremony. There is much work ahead, but by strengthening our relations, united, we can achieve anything.”

Woodhouse Nepinak’s comments were met with enthusiastic applause.

To watch National Chief’s opening address go to CPAC at…