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Smith apologizes for Indian Act comparison after remarks make some First Nations leaders bristle

December 14, 2022

Premier Smith said Wednesday she apologizes for earlier comments if they were ‘misconstrued’

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at a press conference in Edmonton in November. She met with Treaty 6 chiefs on Wednesday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

CBC News: Alberta Premier Danielle Smith attended a pre-arranged meeting with Treaty 6 chiefs on Wednesday amid pushback from Indigenous leaders, who continue to call for her flagship Sovereignty Act legislation to be withdrawn.

That meeting evidently did not move the chiefs from their initial request. “It was clear from our discussions that Premier Smith does not understand treaty or our inherent rights, nor does she respect them,” reads a statement released after the meeting.

The meeting took place a day after Smith compared Alberta’s relationship with Ottawa to that of First Nations under the Indian Act.

“This is all about making sure that Ottawa stays out of our jurisdiction,” Smith said Tuesday during question period in the Alberta Legislature. 

“The way I’ve described it to the chiefs that I’ve spoke with is that they have fought a battle over the last number of years to get sovereignty respected, and to extract themselves from the paternalistic Indian Act.

“We get treated the exact same way from Ottawa. They interfere in our jurisdiction all the time, and we are looking forward to pushing back and being treated exactly like Quebec.”

Indian Act broad in scope

The Indian Act, which was originally passed in 1876, is a set of laws intended to govern First Nations people in Canada. It has since been amended multiple times, and is broad in scope, legislating areas such as land use, education and healthcare in Indigenous life.

The controversial act has attracted scores of criticism over the years, and attempts to enact major changes have failed. Dan Christmas, the first Mi’kmaq member of the Senate, said in 2017 that the act condemned Indigenous communities to a lifetime of poverty.

“The point I’m making is a very stark one: Life under the Indian Act is a horrible and unproductive existence whose ultimate destiny is insolvency and ruin, both economically and emotionally,” he said at the time.

Chief Tony Alexis from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation previously said there had been no consultation or dialogue with First Nations around the Alberta Sovereignty act and said it could set a harmful precedent. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Treaty 6 Chief Tony Alexis of Alberta’s Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation rejected Smith’s drawing of parallels between the relationships of First Nations, Alberta and the federal government.

“We know this not to be true,” Alexis said in an emailed statement. “I want Premier Smith to focus on our concerns about the Sovereignty Act, rather than try to use our people in her fight against Ottawa.”

Autumn Eaglespeaker, one of the co-founders of Idle No More in Calgary, similarly rejected the comparison, calling the two “apples and oranges.”

“They have nothing to do with another. The Sovereignty Act is a complete infringement and disregard for Indigenous rights,” Eaglespeaker wrote in a text message.

The provincial government has said that the legislation should not be construed as “abrogating or derogating from any existing” Aboriginal or treaty rights.

Premier apologizes if comments were ‘misconstrued’

During question period on Wednesday, Smith was asked to apologize for the comments by Opposition NDP Indigenous Relations critic Richard Feehan.

“Does the premier understand the harm her comments create when she minimizes abuse of First Nations [that] they have faced throughout Canada’s history, and they’re still fighting now?” Feehan said.

During question period on Wednesday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was asked to apologize for her comments on the Indian Act by Opposition NDP Indigenous Relations Critic Richard Feehan.

In response, Smith said that had not been the intention of her comments, adding that “if my comments were misconstrued, I absolutely apologize for it.”

“My intention was to demonstrate that we have a common problem with Ottawa,” she said. “Ottawa, I think, unfortunately, treats First Nations with disrespect, and they also treat provinces with disrespect.

“What we need to do is to go back to the original intention of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and make sure that Ottawa is respecting both First Nation sovereignty rights as well as our rights under the Constitution.”

Indigenous leaders want act withdrawn

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is intended to give the province the power to reject federal laws. 

Last week, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, RoseAnne Archibald called for the act, and the similiar Saskatchewan First Act, to be withdrawn.

“We are talking about an infringement not only on treaty and inherent rights, but we’re talking about an attempt to usurp natural laws, which is quite impossible,” Archbald said, specifying that First Nations were not asking for amendments, but for the acts to be withdrawn.

Indigenous leaders had also sent a letter on Friday to Lt.-Gov. Salma Lakhani, asking her to withhold royal assent, Treaty 8 First Nations Grand Chief Arthur Noskey said.

“We have always been a sovereign people. So the issue is the Royal Crown has parliamentarians here in Canada that do not know squat about the treaties. That is the issue,” Noskey told CBC News in an interview.

“If they acknowledged and recognized the treaties and implemented the treaties as the courts have been saying, we wouldn’t have need of a sovereignty act.”

Last week, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said she supported treaty chiefs who are opposing the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

After the bill was passed, Indigenous leaders said there had been no consultation or dialogue with First Nations.

In their press release, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 Nations called the legislation “dangerous.”

“‘The Treaty Six Chiefs would like to clarify that, while Premier Danielle Smith did meet with Treaty Six Chiefs today — this does not, in any way or sense, constitute her duty to consult with regard to any matters of mutual concern,” the release reads. 

“The premier will not dictate how we will be consulted. We will point her once again to the duty to consult to learn more about how to engage and work with us appropriately.”