For an election that is supposed to be about the future of post-pandemic Canada, and at a time when we are having a national reckoning about the thousands of deaths that took place within residential schools as the unmarked graves at those sites are coming to light, there has been a strange lack of a conversation on Indigenous issues. One would think that given the current circumstances and the public mourning for what is essentially the death of innocence in this country as we come to grips with our genocidal past (and some say present), that this might merit some kind of attention in the campaign. Thus far, it’s been vanishingly little.
The most discussion we’ve had over these issues has been in trying to wedge partisan games into what should be serious topics of discussion. As the Assembly of First Nations was releasing their federal priorities that they want to see parties commit to in the election, the media’s focus was on Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s statement that he wants to see flags on federal buildings return to full mast after they have been in a state of perpetual half-mast since the first discovery of the unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School. This was so much the preoccupation that when Power & Politics had the AFN’s National Chief on to talk about her priorities, host David Common focused almost entirely on O’Toole’s comments.
Likewise, when the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami released their own list of priorities for the election, Common kept his focus on ITK president Natan Obed’s comments that voters should keep in mind what happened in 2006 with the Kelowna Accords during that election, trying to paint him into a corner to force him to say that he was endorsing the Liberals over the Conservatives, which Obed was trying not to do as he has to work with whoever wins the election. Let us also not forget the 24-hour news cycle of video of Jagmeet Singh being embarrassed as Manitoba chiefs declared that they were supporting Liberal candidate Shirley Robinson over NDP incumbent Niki Ashton while at an NDP event – again, the focus being on the public humiliation and endorsement over Indigenous issues. And then there was the TVA debate last week, where a whole four minutes were spent on First Nations issues, the bulk of which was spent by Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet declaring that Quebec wasn’t racist.
There are some particular differences between the parties and how they have approached these issues, and how their platforms differ on them – difference we should be discussing. The Liberals, for example, have a record of advancing Indigenous issues and reconciliation more than any government in history, but it’s also been slow, and prone to gaffes and personality conflicts between some of its current and former ministers. Sometimes it’s slow for reasons beyond their control – they can’t break the laws of physics when it comes to how long it’s taking to repair or replace some of the water systems on some remote First Nations reserves because of the limitations of ice roads to deliver materials (which was hampered further by the pandemic this year). Some provinces have been slow to respond when it comes to the calls to action for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls national inquiry (and it was the provinces who refused to let the inquiry carry on longer – not the federal government). And sometimes, the path to achieving results is messy, such as with the court fight over compensation for children apprehended by the child welfare system (where the litigation is about the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal overstepping their statutory grounds, not the compensation itself).
These are some of the reasons why the former AFN National Chief, Perry Bellegarde, and the ITK’s Obed, have been putting an emphasis on the progress that has been made – and why there is more to do. Getting the Canadian framework to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples took longer than it should have because Conservatives have been afraid that this would constitute a veto on future resource extraction projects (never mind that it’s their land and they have rights to it). The bills on Indigenous language protection and on creating the mechanisms to turn over child and family services to individual First Nations instead of the provinces were monumental and will have a massive impact going forward – but they are also things that will require more time, attention, and dollars going forward to ensure that they are able to succeed.
With this in mind, the Liberal platform is largely about continuing the path they’ve been on, moving ahead with the priority areas, supporting Indigenous-led initiatives – which has really been one of the things that this government has been relatively good at, which is letting these communities take the lead and giving them the resources to do it. The NDP platform, while full of photos of Jagmeet Singh meeting with Indigenous people, makes a lot of the same promises as the Liberal platform does but insists that they will get the job done faster, as though throwing money at the problems will make that happen. (If that were the case, those problems would be fixed by now). The Conservatives, by contrast, put a larger focus on regional economic development for Indigenous communities – largely by way of natural resource extraction. This being said, their platform also promises to pass a Critical Infrastructure Protection Act to make it illegal for Indigenous groups to protest by blockading railways as they did in early 2020.
While we can count it as progress that all of the major parties now have detailed chapters in their platforms dedicated to Indigenous issues, the fact that it has been virtually ignored on the campaign trail is disappointing to say the least. We’ll see if it gets any more than five minutes’ time in either of the upcoming leaders’ debates, but even there, these are issues that require some thought and nuance, and a pugilistic battle for the cameras won’t do it justice either. We need to have this conversation, and the parties need to make space for it to happen.