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That one particular phrase from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer about Indigenous rights sparked an intense, minutes-long altercation between the three federal political leaders who showed up for the first debate of the 2019 election campaign.
At the debate, hosted in Toronto by Maclean’s and CityTV, Scheer was discussing whether he would implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canada if he wins power.
The declaration defines a range of human rights related to ownership, identity, employment, education and other critical elements. But the legislation to enact it in Canada, a bill put forward by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, was left to die in the Senate this spring following opposition from Conservatives worried of legal consequences.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who skipped the debate in favour of a campaign rally in Edmonton, had promised in 2015 to implement the declaration. Now, four years later, his party promises it will try again if it is re-elected. The NDP has said that amounts to foot-dragging by the Liberals.
The two-hour long debate was a fierce back-and-forth between three of the federal leaders, much of the time spent arguing over the broad positions on economy, Indigenous issues, environment and energy and foreign policy, with little discussion over the merits of each party’s policy.
In his debut debate appearance, Scheer said the UN declaration was an important provision with “many laudable goals” but then outlined his concern that it would block natural resource projects such as mining, where he noted Indigenous workers make up the largest share of employment.
“We cannot create a system in this country where one group of individuals, one Indigenous community, can hold hostage large projects that employ so many Indigenous Canadians,” he said.
That comment provoked a backlash from both NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — who reconfirmed his party’s position to implement it during his first time on the debate stage — as well as from Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who is also committed to UNDRIP.
“The language that you are using is so inappropriate when talking about Indigenous Canadians,” May exclaimed to Scheer.
Singh had a similar reaction. “You used language like ‘hold hostage,’ which is just incredibly disrespectful,” he said.
‘You can’t treat Indigenous Canadians as though they were an interest group or a lobby’: May
In what was the most heated exchange of the debate, May and Scheer got into a testy exchange over the necessity of implementing UNDRIP. She pointed out that Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution outlines the special Indigenous relationship with the Crown including treaty rights and the concept that First Nations are partners in Confederation.
She mocked Scheer’s position on meaningful First Nations consultations as, “I will consult with you until you agree with what we’ve already decided to do.”
Last year, when the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the Trudeau cabinet’s approval of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project, Justice Eleanor Dawson said the government had failed in this constitutional duty to consult. Government representatives, she said, were instead focused on “transmitting concerns” to decision-makers.
“Canada was obliged to do more than passively hear and receive the real concerns of the Indigenous applicants,” wrote Dawson at the time.
Debate moderator Paul Wells challenged Scheer on this issue. “It is true, Mr. Scheer, that the judge in the Trans Mountain decision last year said that a duty to consult doesn’t mean waiting until the people you’re consulting with stop talking and then you do what you want,” he said.
“You’re absolutely right,” Scheer responded. “The judges and the court decision on this have been clear. The duty to consult means real consultations, it means dynamic consultations. We saw the Trudeau Liberals fail to do that properly.”
At this point, May interjected: “We saw the Harper Conservatives fail to do it too.”
Indeed, Dawson had written that the Trudeau government was given "flawed" recommendations by the National Energy Board (NEB), which took a critical decision related to those recommendations on April 2, 2014, during the 2011-2015 majority government of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
Federal Conservatives denied responsibility to National Observer about this topic in September 2018, saying the Liberal cabinet had approved the process inherited by them in the spring of 2016, and therefore owned the issue from that point forward.
In the debate, Scheer stood his ground. UNDRIP, he said, “means that, where appropriate, those concerns need to be addressed. But it does not mean that any one Indigenous community or another can hold up projects if they happen to disagree with it.”
“What happens if one Indigenous community says no?” Scheer asked his rivals.
“We’re talking nations, not communities, not groups. The language you are using, Andrew, shows no respect,” May shot back.
“You can’t treat Indigenous Canadians as though they were an interest group or a lobby. The rights that they have in the Constitution, and as we as federal leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to protect, even under section 35, much less under UNDRIP, require a rootedness in territory. So the territory of the Squamish and the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh will be irrevocably destroyed if Trans Mountain goes ahead and there’s a single (diluted bitumen) leak. A single one.”
Meanwhile, Singh said Scheer was “talking as if he doesn’t understand the reality.”
“You’re going to have to work with communities, if you don’t have communities buying in, projects won’t go ahead and it’s a matter of respect and dignity...it’s, in fact, better for business, if we ensure that we have a process that we know is going to work with communities.”
Robert Jago, a writer from Kwantlen First Nation, told National Observer after the debate that he felt Scheer’s position was “identical” to Trudeau’s.
“They both see native people as an interest group, they don’t see them as each individual, separate nations. So if you’re dealing with nations, the consent of each nation involved, and they say, ‘What? You can have one group just say no to us building something through their land?’”
Jago said he felt provincial governments had as much claim to a de facto “veto” on resource projects as any Indigenous group. He added that he was impressed with May’s statement that Indigenous groups are not special interests.
“They’re not a single group of people,” he said. “They’re each individual, separate nations, and that’s what UNDRIP does. But I think that Andrew Scheer understands that, he just doesn’t like it.”
Indigenous discussion ‘ghetto-ized’
It’s been less than a week since Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa owes $2 billion in compensation to Indigenous children for its failure to provide adequate on-reserve child welfare services, 12 years after the legal fight began on the issue. But Thursday’s debate was the first time three of the four major political leaders weighed in on the landmark ruling.
While Singh and May endorsed the ruling during the debate and promised to fight to honour the ruling, Trudeau and Scheer have been skirting the issue. Trudeau has yet to speak on it, making clear Wednesday — on the first day of the 2019 election campaign — that his focus was the middle class and climate change. He failed to mention his 2015 campaign promise to achieve “a total renewal” in Ottawa’s relationship with Indigenous people.
During the debate, Scheer spoke broadly on the Tribunal’s ruling: "It's essential that the outcome of this type of decision actually gets the kinds of resources to the people that need it the most.”
He was promptly rebutted by Singh, who found it “appalling” that Scheer wouldn’t say, plain and simple, that “he would accept the ruling” and wouldn’t promise to not appeal it.
Even though Trudeau wasn’t there to comment on the ruling, Jago believes the Liberals’ chance at the Indigenous vote depends on whether they appeal the tribunal’s ruling, which they have a period of 30 days to do.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of reconciliation game he talks. If he appeals that decision, it’s over,” Jago said. “If he decides, ‘no, I’m going to sue some native children, and I’m going to stand up for my right to underfund them and treat them unequally,’ then it’s over.”
But Jago isn’t convinced Indigenous voters will vote elsewhere; he thinks this would just make it more likely they wouldn’t vote at all. Jago was disappointed at how Indigenous issues were “ghetto-ized” into a narrow segment, and segments about the economy, energy and environment, and foreign affairs barely mentioned Indigenous people.
The conversation largely focused on clean drinking water, which Jago says is an important issue, but impacts a minority of Indigenous people. He was disappointed not to hear about other issues like criminal justice reform.
And when May and Singh talked about supporting a Conservative or Liberal minority government and what their non-negotiable issues were, such as LGBTQ issues or environmental issues, Jago pointed out they didn’t mention Indigenous rights as a central issue.
Chiefs from the Enoch Cree Nation who commented after the Indigenous issues segment were the only commentators who were asked to do a “lightning round,” being pressured to provide short answers without context.
An unspecific climate discussion
Only 17.65 minutes of the hour-long debate focused on issues directly related to environment, and “climate” was mentioned only 24 times.
In fact, in the first 20 minutes of the discussion on the economy, no leader ventured to mention climate — despite strong recommendations from Canada’s accountants demanding an overhaul of the federal tax system to help the country effectively confront the climate crisis
No leader was effectively able to communicate a coherent plan, however, to tackle the crisis.
The designated section of the debate on energy and the environment opened with a dodge from Singh. Wells, the moderator, asked Singh if he still supports the $40-billion LNG Canada natural gas project in northern B.C.
‘What I support is the fact that British Columbia is a province with one of the best climate action plans in the country,” said Singh, who then pivoted to Trans Mountain expansion project, lambasting the Liberal Party for its support. The Liberals ordered the pipeline and expansion project to be purchased for $4.5 billion and Canada now owns and operates it through a network of Crown corporations.
When Wells pressed Singh to answer the question, he instead pledged to end fossil fuel subsidies. For a brief moment towards the end of the discussion, he mentioned the need to boost jobs in the energy and environment sector.
Scheer used the example of LNG Canada to mount a criticism of the federal price on pollution, saying the project was only possible because of a “massive exemption” for large emitters written into the Liberal carbon tax. This “exemption” is effectively a tax break given to certain industrial sectors so that they can remain competitive against foreign jurisdictions that don’t have such environmental regulations.
In his next sentence, Scheer claimed incorrectly that small businesses and “hardworking individuals” pay the “full cost” of the federal carbon tax. In reality, small businesses and individuals are eligible for rebates to offset the costs, and most Canadians will receive more money back than they paid.
Scheer also said that Canada could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by exporting domestic natural gas to countries like China, where it would theoretically displace dirtier fuels like coal. However, natural gas operations have their own issues with a potent form of greenhouse gas, methane, escaping from fossil fuel operations.
Scheer talked about exporting natural gas to displace emissions from coal abroad, part of his environmental plan. Oil and gas operations can involve the release of a potent GHG, methane, making this topic more complex. Here's @5thEstate on that recently: https://t.co/OOjEBkZLkm— Carl Meyer (@ottawacarl) September 13, 2019
May fired back at both leaders: “I’m afraid neither Mr. Singh, nor Mr Scheer… (and) Mr. Trudeau understands climate science,” she said. Canada can’t move ahead on the LNG project or the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion if it wants to meet its emissions targets and have a hope of mitigating the peril impact of the climate crisis, May argued.
But even she did not present a comprehensive alternative to tackle the climate plan during the debate, other than the creation of a non-partisan cabinet dedicated for climate solutions and a more ambitious government to tackle the crisis.
Sonia Theroux, co-executive director of Leadnow (a non-profit focused on social justice and the environment) said she was disappointed with the lack of specific climate policies, and how the conversation was restricted to a short segment.
In an interview, Theroux said May and Singh caused more problems by combatting each other on climate policies, rather than showing where they’re in agreement and what cross-party solutions are possible. She said May misrepresented NDP policies, which specifically describe meeting IPCC targets.
“You see the Greens and NDP scrapping each other… that turns off progressive voters, and what they want is to turn on voters,” she said.
She also said May overemphasized the significance of having her policy costed by the parliamentary budget officer, while undermining Singh’s plan for being too expensive.
“To me it smells like the sort of thing that Conservatives do,” she said.
Throughout, Scheer endorsed his climate plan as the only one that could tackle the reality of rising carbon emissions in Canada, one rooted in what he calls “technology over taxes.” While this is true, the main contributing factor to the increase in emissions is the increase in oil and gas production by 23 per cent between 2005 and 2017, largely due to increased oil sands production.
He looked taken aback when May attacked his climate plan by first listing the elements she liked before adding: “if you don’t have the right targets, you can’t make a plan that makes sense.”
“You can’t negotiate with physics,” she said at one point. We are “hanging on to human civilization.”