ALBERTA – Improving access to public services and expanding programs, funding opportunities and partnerships were part of the six commitments outlined in UCP Premier Danielle Smith’s mandate letter to Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson.
In the Nov. 16 letter, Smith outlines the six commitments to work toward ahead of the May 2023 general election, and to ensure inflation and the affordability crisis are top of mind addressing Indigenous relations, as stressed in all of the 18 mandate letters sent to cabinet ministers.
Cora Voyageur, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary whose research interests include First Nations, said there are parts of the letter that piqued her interest, such as one focus on providing communities better access to clean drinking water, but she was disappointed to see no further mention of healthcare needs specific to Indigenous communities, or education.
“There’s a lot of assumptions and a lot of it seems a bit like political posturing,” said Voyageur of the letter. “It doesn’t necessarily speak to the reality within the Indigenous community.
“We have a growing, young [Indigenous] population which means that we’re going to be a bigger part of the future workforce, so we should be making those commitments now to advance opportunities for Indigenous students – and not just in the trades, but universities, too.”
According to the 2021 census, children under 14 accounted for more than 25 per cent of Indigenous populations, while they only made up about 16 per cent of non-Indigenous populations.
The average age of Indigenous people was 33.6 years in Canada in 2021, compared with 41.8 years for the non-Indigenous population.
Smith’s mandate letter to Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange specifies working with the Ministry of Skilled Trades and Professions to “be more responsive to the needs of our current and future workforce while also highlighting the opportunities available through polytechnic education.”
The premier also wrote about the importance of bringing more collegiate schools online to provide alternative pathways for students to post-secondary school.
Voyageur, who is from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation located in Treaty 8 territory, said the needs of Indigenous communities are often unique to non-Indigenous communities, and more steps should have been taken to formulate a plan unique to Métis and First Nations people in the province.
One issue emphasized in Wilson’s letter is the need to work with the ministry of transportation and economic corridors to implement the First Nations Regional Drinking Water Tie-in Program – a joint initiative between First Nations, the provincial government, municipalities or water commissions and the federal government to provide First Nations with better access to clean drinking water.
The program aims to do this by connecting Indigenous communities to existing regional systems in Alberta through grants given to local water commissions or water supply municipalities to extend their service to area First Nations.
“Certainly, that would be something that would really benefit the Indigenous community if we could tie-in those communities that are close to a public water system,” said Voyageur. “But when we’re talking about things like inflation … these are worldwide problems not unique to Alberta or the Indigenous peoples here.
“If [Smith’s] speaking directly to the Indigenous community, we need to also be talking about things like reinvesting in education, training youth to make that transition from school to the workplace, and providing better access to healthcare in some of these remote communities.”
Voyageur also expressed concern over what she said should be clearer language with the intent to consult Indigenous communities directly, particularly where Indigenous peoples and the province’s future energy plans are involved.
In the letter, Smith directed Wilson to “work with the ministers of environment and protected areas; energy; and transportation and economic corridors to ensure Indigenous businesses and communities play a central role in our provincial energy strategy and economic partnerships.”
The UCP government has failed to consult Indigenous peoples, and the rest of the province, over energy strategies in the past.
In May 2020, the UCP announced – without any public consultation from First Nations or other affected parties – that it had rescinded the province’s longstanding 1976 coal policy which blocked coal development and exploration activities along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Several First Nations and other landowners that would be affected by proposed coal developments launched legal action in response.
Nearly two years after it cancelled the policy, the provincial government said it would keep it in place.
“We can’t just open up all our resources, issuing development permits to anybody that comes along, because the Indigenous people are the ones that are going to be living in these areas long after these companies have come-and-gone,” said Voyageur.
“It’s OK to want to invest in energy and look at different strategies and, of course, to include Indigenous peoples in those conversations. But there’s really nothing about protection of the environment or about protecting natural resources [in the mandate]. Everything feels very go, go, go.”
Other directions to Wilson include continuing to build and strengthen relationships between Indigenous and Métis communities in Alberta, and respecting traditional territories and treaties, partnering with Indigenous communities on “planning economic corridors and other major development projects for the mutual economic benefit of all.”
The premier also mentions Jordan’s Principle – a child-first needs-based public policy which aims to ensure First Nations children living on and off reserve have equal access to government-funded public services.
“Take the lead on Indigenous reconciliation by using [the principle] as a guide to ensure every Indigenous person has the same access to core services as any other Alberta,” Smith wrote.
The premier also told Wilson to support the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC), working with the organization to expand programming. The AIOC is a provincial Crown corporation that bridges the gap between Indigenous groups seeking commercial partnerships in major projects and their financial capacity in areas such as natural resources, agriculture, telecommunications and transportation.
Voyageur said she would have liked to see more engagement with Indigenous communities to form the mandate letter, which outlines objectives and pressing challenges Minister Wilson will address in his role.
Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act is not mentioned in Wilson’s letter but is outlined as a priority in Alberta justice minister Tyler Shandro’s letter.
After the Outlook’s interview with Voyageur, First Nations chiefs representing Treaties 6, 7 and 8 gathered for a news conference in Edmonton Nov. 18 to jointly reject the sovereignty act, saying it infringes upon their rights in the treaties which were signed by the Crown, not Alberta.
In the upcoming Nov. 29 session of the Alberta Legislature, Smith has said she intends to introduce the bill which would allow Alberta to opt out of federal measures deemed harmful to its interests. It is unclear what else the act might entail.
“Instead of beating the same old drum about the Sovereignty Act, she needs to build her tent a little bit bigger and engage with other people who vote in this province,” said Voyageur.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.