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No More Seats at the Table: Canada's Premiers and National Aboriginal Organizations

Three of Canada's five major National Aboriginal Organizations (NAOs) opted to skip this month's annual meeting with the premiers in Edmonton.  The move prompted several media outlets to run lead stories featuring leaders of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Metis National Council (MNC) and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) condemning the premiers for failing to invite them to the "main table" of the Council of the Federation (CoF) -- a body exclusively reserved for the thirteen provincial and territorial premiers.  They accused premiers of "segregating" Indigenous leaders from high-level discussions, relegating them to a pre-event conversation.

For their part, premiers were reserved in their response, extending an open invitation to all NAO leaders to meet with them again next summer.  Premiers met with the remaining two NAOs -- the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) -- per usual.

Were the three absent NAO leaders justified in their boycott of this year's meeting with premiers?
First, a bit of history.  CoF was founded in 2003, as a successor to the Annual Premiers' Conference (APC).  The new body meets more frequently (twice per year), and has a stronger support structure than its predecessor.  Nonetheless, early on, critics were right to note that the modus operandi of the two organizations was to lobby (and in some cases, publicly shame) the federal government into acting on matters of provincial and territorial interest, primarily healthcare and fiscal arrangements.

While calls-to-action aimed at the federal government continue, research by Emmet Collins and Megan Chenard demonstrates that outright fed-bashing has become increasingly rare at CoF meetings.  Instead, the Council of the Federation has established itself as a national policy-making and agenda-setting body, filling the vacuum created by a decade of federal disengagement from matters of provincial jurisdiction under the Harper government.
NAO leaders have been meeting off and on with Premiers since 1991, and on an annual basis since 2004.  
These gatherings have featured agreed-upon agendas, and have occurred the day before the formal Council of the Federation meeting.  In 2009, premiers and NAO leaders agreed to establish a permanent, stand-alone body to work on common issues between these annual meetings, tasking their  officials to assemble at least twice a year under the aegis of the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group (AAWG).  Featuring provincial-territorial ministers responsible for Indigenous affairs (including several premiers) and the NAO leaders, the AAWG also extended an open invitation to the federal aboriginal affairs minister (which was accepted twice under the Harper government).  In 2016, the federal government formally joined the group, re-christening it the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Indigenous Forum (FPTIF).
The AAWG and FPTIF have fostered important collaboration on issues ranging from housing and education to violence against Indigenous women and girls to economic development.
From an outsider's perspective, NAO leaders would find value in meeting with premiers for at least three reasons:
  1. CoF has established itself in terms of influencing the national agenda, particularly on issues of importance to Indigenous communities and on issues of importance to the federal government.  In other words, NAO leaders can leverage premiers' collective voice to place Indigenous issues near the top of the agenda.
  2. A lot of the major challenges facing Indigenous communities are tied intimately to areas of provincial or shared jurisdiction, including health, education, justice, the environment, and economic development.
  3. The federal government has become increasingly structured in its interactions with NAOs, limiting their influence over policy agendas and outcomes.
Given the Council's influence, it is at once understandable why the AFN, MNC, and ITK wanted seats at the formal CoF table, and perplexing why they would choose to skip conversations that, in the past, have proven very productive in advancing mutual interests.

Consider the fact that AAWG and pre-CoF meetings laid the groundwork for major CoF announcements related to the Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and a groundbreaking report on Aboriginal children in care.  Indeed, as Collins and Chenard have noted, Indigenous issues have become more and more salient features of CoF communiques, particularly since 2012.

Figure 1 source: Collins (2017: 5)

Much work remains in these and other areas, but it is somewhat contradictory for some NAO leaders to leave the table while at the same time calling for more action.

What about the premiers?  No doubt, they find value in continuing to meet with NAO leaders, whether from a policy (engagement), moral (reconciliation), or political (optics) perspective.

Nonetheless, there are several reasons why premiers could be persuaded abandon the gatherings in the future, if the boycott continues.  For one, these annual meetings often come at the expense of relationships with their own local Indigenous organizations communities, some of whom are at odds with NAO positions and tactics.  Premiers often return from meetings with NAO leaders, and task their ministers and officials with communicating the results and smoothing over tensions with local Indigenous partners.  For another, they already interact with NAO leaders through the FPTIF.

For these and other reasons, inviting NAO leaders to be full participants in the Council of the Federation is not only unlikely but ill-advised.  

Making NAOs members of the Council would involve far more than adding chairs to the table.  The CoF Founding Agreement would need to be revised, requiring unanimous consent of all premiers to not only change the membership, but also the mandate of the organization.  Those who study or work in intergovernmental relations know how challenging it can be to achieve consensus on far less consequential matters, which helps to explain why the Founding Agreement has not been amended since its inception.

Nor should, it in this instance.  Alongside various regional premiers' groups (like the Western Premiers Conference, Northern Premiers' Forum, and Council of Atlantic Premiers), the Council of the Federation exists to promote collaboration among Canada's thirteen provincial and territorial governments. Its mandate is stretched, its agendas full, and its energies strained in terms of achieving that objective, without adding an Indigenous component.  Moreover, the functional relationship between provinces/territories and NAOs has shifted to the FPTIF, with good reason and good effect  considering the that most (if not all) issues that confront provincial/territorial and Indigenous leaders require an active federal partner.

National Aboriginal Organizations know all of this, which is what makes the AFN/MNC/ITK boycott all the more disappointing and confusing.