WINNIPEG — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is considering a request to give First Nations the power to directly call in the military when their treaty, environmental and other rights are threatened.
Ron Swain, vice-chief with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, told Sajjan during consultations with indigenous groups Wednesday that aboriginal communities deserve the same rights as provincial governments, which have the authority under the National Defence Act to call in the military to fight civil unrest and during other crises.
"We believe, in protecting our sovereign territory and our issues around environmental concerns, we should be able to trigger the same response and have our Armed Forces defending our treaties and our territories," Swain said during a break in the closed-door meeting in Winnipeg that included about a dozen aboriginal leaders and academics.
The meeting, which focused on indigenous issues, was one of several discussions Sajjan is holding around the country as part of a broad review of Canada's defence policies.
Swain, whose group represents First Nations and Metis who do not live on reserve, pointed to the Oka crisis of 1990, when the Quebec government called in the military to try to restore order after repeated clashes between police and Mohawk protesters.
He said indigenous communities should be able to call in the military to come to their defence in such cases, or in the event that development that could pose a risk to the environment is taking place without First Nations consent. Swain cited the current standoff involving the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota over construction of an oil pipeline.
"Our people and our communities are very concerned about water and this whole issue about pipelines."
Even municipalities appear to have an easier time getting military intervention, said Swain, who pointed to the 1999 snowstorm in Toronto that had then-mayor Mel Lastman pleading successfully for army aid.
A spokesman for Sajjan was noncommittal on the idea.
"We thank vice-chief Swain ... for bringing this idea to our attention; it is certainly something we will consider as we move forward in the policy review process," Jordan Owens, Sajjan's press secretary, wrote in an email.
Earlier in the day, Sajjan said the meeting would look at a wide variety of topics — everything from the Canadian Rangers, a largely indigenous group of army reserves that helps patrol the North, to job opportunities for indigenous youth in the military.
"There are countless stories out there within the military that we do need to share, that we can inspire the younger generation to be able to look at, potentially, the military as a career, but also to look at it as an opportunity for learning and apply it to other careers as well," Sajjan said.
Canada's revamped defence policy is expected early next year and is expected to address everything from overseas military missions to cyber terrorism.