Treaty 6 Grand Chief Greg Desjarlais refused to vote in favour of a resolution that called on the Assembly of First Nations to support the co-development of federal health legislation.
However, despite Desjarlais’s concerns that such legislation did not respect the medicine chest clause that was negotiated in Treaty 6 the resolution, amended to read First Nations Participation in the development of distinctions-based Health Legislation, passed on Dec. 9, the final day of AFN’s three-day virtual Special Chiefs Assembly.
The resolution was introduced on Dec. 7 and brought back to the floor two days later with amendments, which included dropping the word “Supporting” from the beginning of the title.
“It’s about jurisdiction. It’s about respect. It’s about upholding the treaty, even though we don’t all have treaty …. At this table we need to respect each other’s treaty,” said Desjarlais.
“It’s our job and our duty to uphold the medicine chest clause. We are custodians of the medicine chest. All Indigenous peoples have medicines given to us as an inherent right. However, in Treaty 6 our ancestors requested that the medicine chest be included in the treaty, which the Crown agreed and we’re not consenting to any changes to the treaty.”
The medicine chest clause is “understood as providing a guarantee of all health care services, delivery, medicines, and supplies as required by Indigenous peoples,” reads a submission by the Maskwacis Cree to the United Nations’ Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2018. The famine and pestilence clause is “understood as providing a guarantee of appropriate and expedient support … in the face of famine or pestilences … such as chronic diseases, outbreaks, epidemics and other similar health matters.” Maskwacis Nations invoked the medicine chest clause when they declared a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
While Treaty 6 is the only treaty to include these two clauses, the support outlined by these clauses pertain to all First Nations that are signatories to treaties.
Also opposing the resolution but for different reasons was Regena Crowchild, proxy for the Tsuut’ina Nation in Alberta. She said that in October, her chief and council passed a resolution stating that as AFN was not a rights holder, it did not have “the right or authority to speak, negotiate or enter into agreements” that impacted the inherent and treaty rights of the Tsuut’ina Nation.
“And that includes health. We have asserted jurisdiction over health, and chief and council are the only ones that can speak to the matter with the federal government,” said Crowchild.
Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict voiced his rejection of the co-development process with Ottawa. He said if the resolution were divided in two, he could back a resolution that supported health legislation for First Nation communities, but wouldn’t back a resolution that supported co-development of such legislation.
He said co-development was always a controversial topic at AFN assemblies.
Kupki7 Judy Wilson of Neskonlith Indian Band (British Columbia) expressed concerns about whether BC nations’ health agreement with Ottawa would be impacted.
Chief Dean Sayers of Batchewana First Nation (Ontario) expressed concern about how their present negotiations could be impacted by the resolution.
“We really have had some historic concerns as well with the paternalistic development of legislation by the Crown. We are on a path in our region here that will see us taking full charge of our health system and hoping that’s not too far off on the horizon. I’m not sure this will align with that,” said Sayers, who added he would not support the resolution.
Judith Sayers, proxy for Hupacasath First Nation (BC), said the resolution did not indicate that the AFN would have a voice in development of distinctions-based health legislation, but that the AFN would direct Canada to have “focused dialogue” with impacted First Nations.
“Now that the federal government has passed their UNDRIP Act, the changes to any health legislation would follow UNDRIP and recognition of our responsibilities to health,” said Judith Sayers.
She pointed out that some First Nations could say they didn’t want changes, but wanted their treaty rights recognized, while others could say they “really need these changes.”
Eric Morris, chief of Teslin Tinglit Council, in the Yukon spoke in favour of the resolution.
“In some ways, when we look at what this resolution brings forward, it is one of those many avenues in which we can begin work in helping our communities that definitely need help, (that) are limited in terms of the resources that they have available to themselves to do the things they see need to be done, and I definitely think this is one of those areas,” he said.
The resolution also called upon the AFN to ensure Ottawa provided “fully and sustainable funding to allow for (individual First Nations) full, direct, and unfettered participation in all legislative co-development process and implementation.”