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Where the parties stand on Indigenous issues

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Justin Trudeau addressing the 2017 Families of Sisters in Spirit vigil for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, on Oct 4, 2017. Photo by Obert Madondo (Flickr).

This year’s federal election campaign has seen a significant drop in priority for Indigenous issues, especially in terms of the federal leaders’ debate and their campaign commentary. This stands in stark contrast to the 2015 election campaign, which saw Liberal leader Justin Trudeau center his campaign on rebuilding Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The phrase “there is no relationship more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples” became his oft-cited mantra. He made significant promises to Indigenous peoples, like a commitment to a nation-to-nation relationship based on respect for Indigenous rights and the promise to repeal all of Harper’s legislation; which set his platform apart from the other parties. Indigenous peoples voted in record numbers and helped secure the election for the Liberals. This time around, everything has changed.

Trudeau started off his campaign without even mentioning Indigenous peoples. The Green Party leader, Elizabeth May’s primary focus has been on addressing the climate crisis and the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s focus has been on pharmacare and making the rich pay their fair share. To no surprise, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s core message has been on his prized energy corridor and ensuring all natural resource extraction projects go ahead – with or without the consent of Indigenous peoples or the provinces. None of the four main parties have prioritized Indigenous issues, though three out of the four parties have made significant commitments within their platforms. All four have a specific section on Indigenous commitments, but some have additional commitments sprinkled throughout the rest of their platforms. While the Liberals, Greens and NDP share some of the same commitments, there are some core differences. Scheer’s platform, on the other hand, is exceptionally weak on Indigenous issues and very similar to that of Peoples’ Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier – a non-player in this election.

One issue on which all four parties agree is the urgent need to address water issues on reserve. The Liberals promise to end “long-term” boil water advisories (BWA) by 2021; the Greens commit to end all boil water advisories and address the needed infrastructure on reserve; whereas the NDP commit to end all water advisories by 2021 with a significant commitments to Indigenous-led training and operations. The Conservatives only commit to “support efforts” to end “long-term” BWAs without any timeframes or details. What is significant here is that both the NDP and Greens commit to address all water issues with the much-needed investments in training and infrastructure. Both the Liberals and Conservatives limit action to only the “long-term” water advisories which do not cover the many other water issues on reserve.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens all commit to culturally-relevant healthcare, including mental health care. The NDP specifically commit to supporting Indigenous self-determination in healthcare, as well as both a suicide action plan and a mercury poisoning treatment centre for Grassy Narrows. The Greens focus on maternal healthcare, infant care, addressing the TB crisis, and like the NDP, building health governance capacity within Indigenous communities. The Conservative platform was empty with regards to addressing the inequitable lack of access to healthcare and/or the poor health conditions of Indigenous peoples. They also lack any commitment to addressing housing on and off reserve, in contrast to the Liberals, NDP and Greens who all commit to addressing the housing crisis. The NDP and Greens also include measures to address mold, safety, the effects of climate change and retrofits for energy efficiency whereas the Liberals promise to address “major infrastructure” by 2030, but without a measurable plan for the next four years.

While the Liberals, NDP and Greens all make commitments to support Indigenous languages, the Liberals focus on implementing the controversial C-91 Indigenous Languages Act which was enacted against the will of many First Nations and which failed to include the promised statutory-based funding. The Liberal platform does however, commit to “move forward” with funding. By contrast, the NDPs promise new legislation and stable funding, whereas the Greens offer general support for Indigenous languages and the development of language curricula. Bill C-92 was another piece of highly controversial legislation relating to Indigenous child welfare, that was imposed by the Liberal government despite a significant number of First Nations protesting the act. The Liberals promise to move forward with its implementation and funding, while the NDP and Greens will respect Indigenous rights and jurisdiction in relation to child welfare and commit to funding Indigenous governance in this area.

All three parties – Liberals, NDP and Greens – commit to ending the use of diesel for energy in First Nations and transitioning to clean energy, however the Liberal timeline is 2030, whereas the other parties commit to immediate action. All four parties make some level of commitment to addressing the socio-economic gap but differ greatly on what they consider urgent priorities. The NDP commit to implement Shannon’s Dream for education on and off reserve, more money for post-secondary education and funding for kids in foster care. The Greens have said they will work with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on their priorities as well as increase money for education without a cap on post-secondary education funding. The Liberal platform makes general commitments to education and skills training without details and the Conservatives will “support efforts” to address the socio-economic gap, without specific commitments.

The Conservatives have publically criticized the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and said that free, prior and informed consent would mean that “Indigenous groups” could “hold hostage” energy projects. It is no surprise then that the Conservatives do not make any commitments in relation to UNDRIP, and instead promise to use constitutional powers to declare energy projects to be in the “national interest” and force their construction without Indigenous or provincial consent. The Conservatives are also promising funding to organizations that will facilitate partnerships between Indigenous communities and the extractive industry. Their plan includes building an energy corridor across Canada; building the Trans-Mountain pipeline; ending the ban on shipping along B.C.’s coast; and repealing C-69 and its environmental protections.

While the Liberals commit to implementing UNDRIP within the first year of their mandate (an unfulfilled promise from last election); they do not commit to respect free, prior and informed consent. The Liberals will develop a resource-revenue sharing “framework” whereby Indigenous peoples can share in the profits from ore, gas and oil. The NDP commit to a national action plan to implement UNDRIP, and promise good-faith, consent-based negotiations consistent with the Tsilhqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. The Greens differentiate themselves by not only committing to remove all judicial, legislative and executive obstacles to fully implementing UNDRIP into law, but will ensure a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples grounded in free, prior and informed consent. Similarly, while the Liberals promise a National Treaty Commissioner to review treaty obligations; the NDP and Greens both promise to fully recognize, respect and implement treaties and other agreements.

This trend continues when one considers the election commitments on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action and the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (National Inquiry) Calls for Justice. All parties but the NDP, failed to acknowledge the National Inquiry’s finding of genocide against Canada. This is a significant omission given that both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed deep concerns about genocide in Canada. All parties did commit to a national action plan to implement the National Inquiry’s recommendations, while the NDP further promised to support Indigenous self-determination over land, in addition to addressing violence against Indigenous women. The Conservatives make no commitments with regards to TRC implementation, whereas the Liberals, Greens and NDP all commit to do so. The NDP go further however, and promise a national action plan on reconciliation as well as legislation to create a National Council on Reconciliation. The Green party also indicated they would implement the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) all in partnership with Indigenous peoples.

The Indian Act has always been a source of controversy; from the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy (which proposed to do away with the Act and reserves), to Harper’s legislation requiring that the Minister of Indian Affairs to report every year on progress to repeal the Act. At all times, the majority of First Nations have resisted federal attempts to unilaterally repeal the Act. Yet, the Act appears as a central pillar in most of the platforms. The Liberals promise to continue moving away from the Indian Act through federally prescribed processes, under the guise of supporting nation building. The Conservatives are also pushing the removal of the Act, without any commitment to replace it with other mechanisms to protect Indigenous rights. This sounds much like Bernier’s commitment to replace the Act with legislation to ensure equal rights of Indigenous peoples “as Canadians”. Greens also promised to dismantle the Indian Act which seemed a bit disconnected from the rest of their platform which clearly recognized inherent rights, sovereignty, land ownership and self-determination and the importance of Indigenous-led processes. The NDP don’t mention the Indian Act at all, but instead focus on nation to nation negotiations and respect of rights.

There are some stark differences when it comes to issues like compliance with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) decision directing the federal government to stop racially discriminating with regards to funding for First Nations children in foster care. After seven non-compliance orders against Canada, the CHRT ordered that they compensate those who had been discriminated against. Scheer promised to judicially review the decision and Trudeau’s Liberals appealed the decision arguing to set aside the order of compensation. In their platforms, both the NDP and the Greens promise full compliance with the CHRT decision and orders and May raised the issue several times in the election debates.

There are also some unique commitments that set each party apart from one another. The Liberals are promising a First Ministers meeting with Indigenous “partners” – most likely the AFN, Metis National Council (MNC) and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and a legislative agenda with potentially significant impacts on Indigenous peoples including land and water conservation, a new Canada Water Agency and an Aquaculture Act. The Conservatives stand out – in a bad way - for their commitment to assert federal jurisdiction over all energy projects and use constitutional powers to force projects through without provincial or Indigenous consent. The NDP’s unique contribution is their commitment to confront racism, especially against Indigenous peoples, which includes a new National Working Group on Online Hate, as well as transparency around international trade agreements and engaging Indigenous peoples. The Greens stand out for their promise of a Guaranteed Livable Income that includes specific considerations for Indigenous peoples and their promise to create of Council of Canadian Governments that includes Indigenous Nations.

Overall, the Liberals, NDP and Greens included significant commitments to Indigenous peoples within their platforms, however, these commitments must be read in the context of their entire platform and past practices. The Liberals focus a great deal on the middle class and taxation schemes, with little mention of Indigenous peoples in the rest of their platform. They also made and broke many promises to Indigenous peoples including failing to repeal Harper’s suite of First Nation legislation; failing to respect Indigenous rights (approved Trans Mountain without First Nation consent); failing to fully lift cap on social programs (students still on waiting lists for post-secondary education); and ensuring Canadians laws were section 35 compliant. Similarly, one must look at Scheer’s weak Indigenous platform and his promise to ram project approvals through over Indigenous lands as a continuation of Harper’s anti-First Nation rights agenda. What is concerning are all the ways in which the platforms of Trudeau and Scheer overlap – Indian Act abolishment, pipelines, legislative agenda, failure to recognize free, prior and informed consent, and Indigenous ore, oil and gas agreements.

Only the Greens and NDP (at the federal level) are untested. Both of their platforms contain much more comprehensive and substantive commitments in relation to respecting Indigenous rights, treaties, human rights, jurisdiction, sovereignty, self-determination, UNDRIP, TRC, the National Inquiry and addressing the socio-economic crisis which includes housing, water, food security, education, health, over-incarceration, foster care and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. They both include Indigenous peoples in climate action moving forward and a focus on nation-to-nation negotiations and federal decision-making tables. The entirety of their platforms on other issues are also important – their commitment to climate action, social justice, and fairness goes a long to way to informing their overall values.

Their platforms are not perfect however, and lack some of the core elements to a sustainable, nation to nation relationship moving forward: (1) return of significant portions of so-called crown lands to reserves; (2) a share in the wealth from First Nation lands, not dependant on further extraction of natural resources, but sustainable income from government fees, fines, penalties, levies, duties, taxes (all kinds), royalties and profits; (3) a negotiation process for harmonization of Indigenous laws, federal and provincial laws and jurisdictions; and a significant reparations for past and ongoing genocide and breaches of human rights. A platform which truly prioritized Indigenous issues would have started out by addressing the two major crises faces Canadians today – the finding of genocide against Canada for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and the looming climate crisis. There is no greater crime against humanity than the atrocities associated with genocide and genocide against Indigenous peoples and ecocide of their lands often go hand in hand. From there, the platform could have built upon a transitional justice plan to end genocide and how this links to their plans to address the climate crisis. It should have been front and center in how they presented their plan and what they chose to include in the federal election debates. It is not enough to say we’ll implement the recommendations and move on. What’s the plan, why is it important and why should Canadians care about ending genocide and ecocide?

It is very clear that a vote for Scheer’s Conservatives is like voting Harper back into office – but much, much worse. The question remains where to put the vote as between the other three parties. I say the best way to judge a party’s sincerity on fulfilling future election promises is on its past record. If people consider this seriously, then there are really only two parties worthy of conditional support in this election. I say conditional because they all have work to do to get things right on a nation-to-nation basis which can never be achieved on a pan-Aboriginal, top-down approach that doesn’t address ongoing genocide, the dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources or the disproportional impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.


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