Indigenous leaders urge action as Canada’s election nears

By Natalie Alcoba
An offering is seen at the site of the former Brandon Indian Residential School where researchers located 104 potential graves in Brandon, Manitoba, on June 12 [Shannon VanRaes/Reuters]

Toronto, Canada – After the discoveries this year of unmarked graves belonging to Indigenous children who attended schools of assimilation in Canada, Cindy Blackstock expected much more from the people who want to lead the country.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist for child welfare and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

“If you are a government and bodies of children – hundreds of them, thousands of them – are being found in schools that you controlled and operated, and evidence is on the record that you could have prevented those deaths in many instances, then why is something like gun control more important than that?” she asked.

The sentiment that Indigenous priorities are not getting enough attention was echoed by various leaders in the waning days of a federal election campaign, in which the rights and priorities of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people have mostly taken a backseat.

The brutal legacy of colonialism is well documented in a country renowned for its human rights reputation around the world.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said Canada committed “cultural genocide” through its so-called “residential school system”, forcing 150,000 Indigenous children from the late 1800s to 1996 into institutions where many suffered abuse, malnutrition, and death.

This “dark past” is present to this day, through lack of access to clean drinking water, trampled treaty rights, disproportionate numbers of children in foster care, the travesty of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and a youth suicide crisis.

“I think it’s important for the parties to get with the programme, so to speak, and respond to their own electorate by stating how they will begin to solve some of the longstanding problems in Canada as it relates to First Nations peoples,” said RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, adding she was heartened to see more attention paid in the final stretch of the campaign.

“The recognition and implementation and honouring of these inherent and treaty rights – this is really the path forward for healing this whole country.”

‘Work in partnership’

Indigenous peoples make up just less than 5 percent of the Canadian population, or about 1.7 million people, according to the 2016 Census.

In advance of the September 20 federal election, there has been both a renewed push to encourage Indigenous people to vote by organisations such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada, along with a record 77 people from First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities who are running as candidates of all political stripes.

But Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organisation that represents Inuit, highlighted a persistent lack of understanding on the part of most federal party leaders about how Indigenous people structure their politics – and how to respectfully work towards reconciliation.

In many ways, the tenor of the conversation is stuck in another era, he told Al Jazeera, with leaders talking about working with individuals who may have name recognition “as if we don’t have our own systems that create our priorities, and then also have a relationship directly with the federal government through a governance model”.

“Just hearing a party leader not understand basic terminology,” said Obed, referring to Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, who has used the term First Nations as if it applies to all Indigenous people.

“During elections, leaders are asked what they will do for Indigenous people and I think we’re just not in that space anymore. We work in partnership,” he said. “Indigenous peoples have agency, we have power, we have governance models.

“We hope that Canadians will continue down the path of reconciliation with us and choose to elect politicians who respect Indigenous peoples’ rights and respect the work done in partnership.”

Boil-water advisories, child funding

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, became prime minister in 2015 on a promise to repair the government’s relationship with Indigenous people across Canada. In the current campaign, he has said his government “stepped up on the path to reconciliation”, ending 109 long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves, rebuilding schools, and bringing “the truth forward” with an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

But at a French-language debate, the issue of access to clean drinking water on First Nations reserves was presented as a question, rather than an imperative, while at a subsequent debate in English, Marek McLeod, a young Indigenous man, asked the leaders, “How can I trust and respect the federal government after 150 plus years of lies and abuse to my people?”

Fifty-one long-term drinking water advisories were in effect in 32 First Nations communities across Canada as of August 28, according to the government, though Trudeau promised in 2015 to end boil-water advisories in all First Nations communities within five years.

The Liberal leader has been challenged on his record by his opponents, including in particular Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), who said during the recent debate that the government has yet to act on a long list of calls to actions from numerous inquiries.

A man holds his head as he attends an impromptu vigil at an anti-Canada Day event titled ‘No Pride in Genocide’ in Toronto, Ontario, on July 1, 2021 [File: Cole Burston/AFP]

“You can’t take a knee one day, if you’re taking Indigenous kids to court the next,” added Singh.

The federal government is currently fighting the compensation scheme ordered by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled five years ago that Canada was discriminating against Indigenous children on reserves by systematically underfunding their services, something advocates say has led to a disproportionate number in foster care.

“There have been 20 non-compliance and procedural orders since 2016,” said Blackstock, who has had a front-row seat to the litigation as her organisation is one of the complainants in the case.

‘How do we heal?’

As far as Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, longtime president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, is concerned, neither Trudeau nor O’Toole, the Conservative leader, have any “real intention of changing the status quo”.

“In terms of climate policy Prime Minister Trudeau went out and bought a pipeline,” said Phillip, referring to the contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast.

“And Erin O’Toole is talking about resurrecting a dead pipeline (the Northern Gateway project) so neither of them have any genuine commitment to a progressive climate policy,” said Phillip. That is something that he said is top of mind for many Indigenous communities who are feeling the harsh effects of the climate crisis.

Lynne Groulx, chief executive officer of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said her organisation graded the NDP’s platform ahead of the Liberals, noting a loss of confidence for Trudeau because promises have not been met. She stressed the importance of bringing Indigenous women to the decision-making table, as well.

“This is an historic time,” said Groulx, who is Metis. “We’re at the cusp of having those big discussions again of how are we decolonising, how are we moving out of this system and away from the Indian Act and to true self determination.”

Archibald, leader of the AFN, agreed that the landscape has changed in important ways.

“Regular Canadians are grappling with the interruption of the myth of Canada and beginning to understand the truth of this country and that it is actually built on the graves of our children and it is built upon genocide,” she said. “But many of them are on our side and they really are looking for answers on, how do we start to heal from this?”


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