When NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promised clean water on First Nations reserves and the Greens’ Elizabeth May pledged that a Green government would start dismantling the Indian Act, both on Saturday, it was the first time Indigenous issues got much attention on the federal campaign trail.
The federal party leaders’ near-silence on them speaks volumes about their importance to Canadian politicians, says Cindy Blackstock, a prominent First Nations leader who led the human-rights case that led to a multi-billion-dollar compensation award for Indigenous children.
Neither Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau nor Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has invested campaign time or energy in these matters.
“I think that signifies the priority with which the governments tend to address First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and their concerns: when they’re not even talking about it, and they’re talking about things like camping credits, that tells you where we’re positioned in the ranking of priorities,” Blackstock says.
Certain hot-button concerns affecting Indigenous populations in Canada have cropped up since the campaign began on Sept. 11, including evacuations at the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario due to ongoing water woes and the ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal saying Ottawa “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against children living on reserves by not properly funding child and family services.
Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a member of the Gitxsan First Nation in British Columbia, has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of First Nations children and expressed deep disappointment in what she says has been ongoing “discrimination” against First Nations children, citing the human-rights tribunal’s ruling.
The government is appealing the multi-billion-dollar damage award, saying the election makes it impossible to organize compensation by a Dec. 10 deadline.
Blackstock believes the federal leaders are not talking about Indigenous issues on the campaign trail because they don’t want to draw attention to their “failures.”
“I find it deeply disturbing, frankly, particularly given the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) inquiry and, more recently the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision finding,” Blackstock said of the lack of focus on Indigenous issues in the campaign.
“I would ask myself, if the wilful and reckless discrimination against First Nations children finding by a legal system in Canada is not the top election issue, then what are the kids losing to?”
Few campaign announcements on Indigenous issues
Three of the four main political parties — the Liberals, Greens and NDP — have released their full platforms, and each of them does include promises aimed at Indigenous Peoples. All three are pledging to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to lift all drinking water advisories.
Between them, there are also promises of:
- improved access to mental health and addictions services;
- new benefits-sharing agreements with Indigenous communities for major resource projects;
- targets to see at least five per cent of all federal contracts awarded to businesses led by Indigenous people; and
- promises to implement the calls to action and the calls to justice in the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the MMIWG inquiry.
The Conservatives have not yet released any campaign promises specifically aimed at Indigenous people.
Major daily platform announcements have likewise not focused on Indigenous issues. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did drop two Indigenous platform commitments — plans to overhaul Indigenous health care — into a stump speech in Thunder Bay on Sept. 25. But the mention was brief and delivered during a rally, where he does not take questions and normally does not make policy announcements.
Trudeau’s promises to repair the federal government’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and to move forward with an agenda focused on reconciliation have been billed as key priorities both during the 2015 campaign and throughout his four years in office.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says he believes the Liberal government “has done more for First Nations people than any other government in history,” pointing to billions of dollars in new investments as well as landmark legislation passed to reduce the number of Indigenous children in foster care and to protect Indigenous languages.
All this reflects “movement in the right direction,” he said, but added that “more still needs to be done.”
Fallout from SNC Lavalin
Indigenous leaders, advocates and political scientists offered a variety of reasons why they believe parties, and in particular Trudeau and the Liberals, might shy away from calling attention to their Indigenous policy agenda.
A big reason may be embodied by someone whose name is synonymous with one of the Trudeau government’s biggest scandals: Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The former attorney general was at the centre of a crisis for Trudeau’s government last winter with allegations she had been inappropriately pressured by the prime minister, his office, other ministers and bureaucrats to avert a criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould quit Trudeau’s cabinet over the affair, followed by cabinet ally Jane Philpott. Trudeau eventually kicked both women out of the Liberal caucus and they are now seeking re-election as Independent candidates.
“I think the elephant in the room in regards to this election and really flowing out of the last four years, is what’s gone down with Jody Wilson-Raybould,” said Eli Enns, a political scientist who is Nuu-chah-nulth.
“The Trudeau government made a lot of noise at the beginning of their four-year term about reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and, in the eyes of some people, they did not make good on that. And particularly the fallout with Jody Wilson-Raybould was really a moment where a lot of people said, ‘Has Trudeau been genuine about reconciliation?’ And it confirmed in the minds of many people who were feeling that it was not genuine.”
Naomi Sayers, a lawyer from Garden River First Nation, agreed.
“Indigenous issues, particularly now post-Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, especially for the Liberal party, are a touchy subject,” she said.
“Given the term that they just had — they had multiple non-compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to comply with their decisions over Indigenous children and the services they receive — it’s almost as if they’d be calling attention to the problems that they didn’t solve that they said they would solve.”
Suggestions have also been made the parties’ silence could be a strategic attempt to avoid provoking backlash against Indigenous people. This could be especially true in the midst of an election in which race has been an ongoing flashpoint.
“I know that racism is alive and well in a lot of parts of the country. So it may be just weighing on the side of caution to know that in the minds of Canadians that there’s still a stigma associated with First Nations,” Enns said.
“Sad but true.”
Avoiding discussing minority rights could be strategic
Jennifer Adese, a Métis scholar and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, pointed to increasingly divisive political rhetoric and a hardening of attitudes against minorities in other countries as a warning sign that political parties in Canada might be heeding.
“Looking at a broader landscape of democracies around the world that are moving right and even further right, I think there’s a political strategy in not mentioning or over-emphasizing what can be perceived as minority rights and an over-appeal to so-called minority rights,” said Adese.
“There’s been a shifting political current and I think avoiding talking about Indigenous issues in a substantive way can potentially be a strategy to avoid feeding into that negativity that’s already out there.”
As for the Conservatives, she says their complete silence on Indigenous priorities “is a reflection of what exactly they intend to do: nothing,” Adese said.
“Most Indigenous people remember well the Stephen Harper style of leadership.”
The overall lack of dedicated focus on how the parties plan to work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis in their campaign activities is “not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report,” she added.
“I think Indigenous issues should be at the forefront of all party platforms because we’re not just talking about a special segment of particular rights, this has ripple effects into all areas related to housing, poverty, the environment, so it should be at the forefront.”