While the federal election campaign limps along, First Nations wait, resigned, to see who non-Native Canadians will elect to rule over us.
Responsibility for Indigenous people is exclusive to the federal government, so this election has twice the impact for us, being the equivalent of both a provincial and a federal election. A lot of promises have been made, but few on Indigenous topics, and little media attention has been devoted to the subject.
This leaves Indigenous voters in an information desert and facing the real possibility of a prime minister who has no published policy on how our nations are to be governed.
Electoral malaise among First Nations
This past Sunday, I hosted a town hall at the Kwantlen Cultural Centre on my home reserve on McMillan Island, B.C. The town hall concerned our own government-reform process, but the looming federal election wasn’t far from people’s minds, especially with a band member (Nicole Iaci) running for the Green party.
As the meeting broke up, I sought out attendees to get their views on the election and on the promises coming from most of the federal parties.
Coleen Pierre, a Katzie First Nation elder, said she wanted federal leaders to “listen.”
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“Consultation is so important,” she said. “That’s the key to everything.”
She said the one issue dominating her view of federal politics is the SNC-Lavalin scandal: “Look at the Jody Wilson-Raybould situation with the Liberals. The last person we want to see in there is Justin Trudeau, because of what he did to her. We do consider Jody Wilson-Raybould of high status, a matriarch, the title she once had.”
Another elder, Eileen Pierre, also from Katzie, shared similar feelings about Trudeau, feelings I found were near-universal on reserve. Kwantlen and Katzie are two of the First Nations that oppose the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline through their territories.
Trudeau has “caused nothing but heartache for our people, and he continues to do so,” Eileen said. She told me she would be voting NDP, citing their dental and prescription-drug plans.
Eileen was one of the few decided voters I spoke to. Some said they would vote Green because the party is running a band member. Others were leaning NDP but were hesitant to commit, due to the leader’s race: Kwantlen territory is home to the largest Sikh community outside of India, but anti-South Asian racism is still openly expressed by many of the older generation. The rest were unclear where any of the parties stood.
This ambivalence and knowledge gap extends far beyond our reserve: this election is a difficult one for many Indigenous people.
The 2015 election came shortly after the Idle No More movement took over Indigenous Canada. The antipathy toward the Harper government that sparked countrywide protests, occupations and round dances was still present when it came time to vote. Trudeau’s promise of a new nation-to-nation relationship made him the favourite and likely contributed to the highest-ever voter turnout among Indigenous people.
This election, on the other hand, neither hate nor hope are motivators, and Indigenous issues are far from the centre. Trudeau, perhaps pointedly, didn’t mention Indigenous people in the speech launching his campaign. The Conservatives appear to be in agreement with the Trudeau government’s recent treatment of First Nations, supporting its decision to appeal the child-welfare ruling and themselves pioneering the current Liberal fashion of pro forma resource consultations. With little real conflict between them on this issue, the battle is left to the smaller parties — parties that already struggle for airtime, and appear loath to devote too much of it to Natives.
It’s in this environment of disinterest, neglect and possibly even hostility that Indigenous voters find themselves struggling to understand what the parties have to offer us.
All the major parties, save the Conservatives, have released their Indigenous Affairs policies, either through stand-alone announcements or as dedicated sections of their platforms.
The incumbent Liberals dedicate 13 pages of their platform to Indigenous issues, with separate sections for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. In those 13 pages, the words “nation-to-nation” do not appear. Big difference from 2015, when nation-to-nation was in the title of their Indigenous platform. Also missing is a substantial policy on education. Instead, the platform highlights already-announced and, in some cases, already-existing programs as if they were new.
The Liberals make 17 commitments, including “continuing” the work of eliminating boil-water advisories on reserves, “continuing” to implement the Truth and Reconciliation calls to justice, “continuing” to meet with the Assembly of First Nations and one utterly baffling promise, which I present here in full:
Continuing — in close collaboration with First Nations partners — to deliver better and more timely distinctions-based support. We will continue to invest in the things that make a real difference in the lives of First Nations and their communities.
I have no idea what that means in a concrete sense, or how one would begin to go about ensuring the Liberals keep such a promise.
And if that promise makes you fear that Indigenous people are an afterthought for the Liberals this election, their platform’s costing section, which shows the yearly costs of 48 new policy proposals, confirms it. Of those 48 new policies, only one specifically targets Indigenous people. It accounts for just $25 million, or 0.04 per cent of the $56.9 billion worth of new promises in the Liberal platform.
As for the Conservatives, making Indigenous people an afterthought would be an improvement. I could find no published policies specifically targeted at Indigenous people. I contacted the party’s media representatives with no reply. I also reached out to each of the party’s Indigenous candidates, also with no reply.
A search of the Conservatives' website shows just four unique mentions of Indigenous people in the past month. One mention is to announce the party’s candidates; another is a plan to add Indigenous representatives to an advisory panel on fisheries; another, a pledge to consult with Indigenous governments among many other stakeholders when creating a national autism strategy; and the last, a promise to work with Indigenous governments and provinces in implementing a national energy corridor.
Each of these are bona fide concerns for Indigenous people, but Indigenous people aren’t central to any of these policies. Instead, we appear there as part of a list of governments: provincial, municipal, Indigenous.
In the recent federal leaders' debate, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used the portion devoted to Indigenous issues to redirect the conversation to pipelines. There, he made a promise that should be getting a lot more attention: he committed to appointing “a cabinet minister responsible specifically for Indigenous consultations.” But the weight of that promise was undercut moments later, when he talked about Indigenous consultation as something to “get out of the way.”
In other forums, Scheer has said he will not support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); that he would fight the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s judgment on providing compensation to Indigenous children who have been harmed due to unequal funding of child welfare; and that he would build more pipelines, with or without Indigenous support. It is safe to say the Conservatives’ lack of an Indigenous policy is no accident — this is not a constituency whose votes they covet.
Unlike the Conservatives, the Green party has a published platform, four pages of which are dedicated to “reconciliation,” though two of those consist of angry “woke” rhetoric, which, while true, isn’t something you base a vote on. Of the remaining pages, the Greens make 26 promises to Indigenous people. I question how serious they are about 22 of those promises, as their platform costing document addresses only four: consultations over the repeal of the Indian Act, support for Indigenous languages, infrastructure spending and obeying the Human Rights Tribunal’s Indigenous child-welfare judgment.
The latter commitment strikes at a theme common to each party’s commitments to Indigenous people. The Greens promise to obey the Human Rights Tribunal, the Liberals and Tories promise to carry out consultations, the NDP promises to respect treaties — these aren’t election promises in a classical sense, no more worthy of votes than a promise not to break into cars or commit murder. Promises to obey a tribunal and do consultations are promises to obey Canadian law, which isn’t something the Tories, Liberals or anyone else has a choice about. Vote for me, and I’ll continue my lifelong commitment to obey the laws of gravity. This shouldn’t sway votes, and it’s insulting that they think it will when it comes to First Nations.
The NDP plan for Indigenous people comes in at 13 pages. Their promises and commitments to Natives are vast and detailed. If the Green platform plays the greatest hits — MMIWG report recommendations, TRC calls to action, the UNDRIP — the NDP plan is all deep cuts. They commit to implementing Shannen’s Dream, Jordan’s Principle and the Spirit Bear Principle, relatively obscure but critically important proposals to equalize Indigenous education, health care and child care, respectively. By my count, the NDP make 57 promises to Indigenous people. Most of these are specific where the Greens and Liberals are vague: whereas the latter parties would fund unspecified on-reserve “infrastructure,” the NDP would improve cell service on reserves, firefighting infrastructure and water infrastructure, and they’d establish a treatment centre for those afflicted by Minamata disease in Grassy Narrows.
The Rhino party has no concrete Indigenous policies in its platform, though its “supreme dealer,” Sébastien CoRhino, has told me he is open to making attendance at a powwow mandatory for all non-Natives, as an act of culinary and cultural reconciliation.
The People’s Party of Canada has a more substantial policy than the Rhinos, though possibly less serious: in their section on “aboriginal issues,” there are promises to respect and explore certain things, but nothing that appears to appeal directly to Indigenous people. The policy reads as a retrograde document meant to show non-Natives how the party will deal with the Indian Problem.
Surprisingly, one of the most original and distinctive platforms on Indigenous issues comes from the Bloc Québécois. They commit to implementing the 21 recommendations of the Viens report on systemic racism in Quebec that relate to the federal government and to enforcing the 2002 “Peace of the Braves” between Quebec and the Cree Nation, thereby increasing the latter’s political autonomy. They would also update the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. “As a sovereigntist party, we sincerely believe in the importance of maintaining a nation-to-nation relationship based on respect, dialogue and mutual assistance,” the platforms reads. Most distinctively, the Bloc invites First Nations and Inuit people to join them as founding nations in a new independent Quebec.
Overall, among the major parties’ promises, there is a lot of overlap. The Liberals, NDP and Greens each promise to respect treaties, implement the TRC calls to action, help preserve Indigenous languages and pass legislation implementing the UNDRIP. And each party, including the Conservatives, promises to consult and work with First Nations leaders, and to eliminate long-term boil-water advisories on reserves.
The Greens and NDP each go a step further, promising their consultations with First Nations governments will go beyond the court-mandated duty to consult and accommodate, that they would require consent — in other words, that they would give a veto to First Nations governments on development in their territories. This is a policy I know many Indigenous people want to see, but it must be remembered Trudeau promised the same thing in 2015. That promise was kept right up until Natives wouldn’t consent to something he wanted.
The NDP platform wins, narrowly, and more or less by default
With more than 100 different promises on the table, it seems like it should be easy to make a decision on which party to support. The Liberal plan has little new to offer — 0.04 per cent of what they have to offer other Canadians, to be precise. The Tories have not bothered to produce a plan. The Greens and NDP each have a lot to offer, though the seriousness of the Green commitment is in question as they’ve only costed four of their First Nations promises. I have to imagine implementing the recommendations of the TRC and the MMIWG inquiry has a price tag attached, but the Greens have set no money aside for either. The NDP plan is thorough and specific and comes down to things like clean water, respecting treaties, obeying the Human Rights Tribunal, providing equal access to health care to Native people and equal access to education.
I’m inclined to say the NDP platform is the best of the lot, but that is faint praise when you compare these promises to the ones being made to non-Natives. Natives are promised water — you know, the substance that makes up 60 per cent of your body and without which you would die. Non-Natives are getting $2,000 a year for camping from the Liberals, the Greens are offering an increase of $300 million each year until the CBC is as good as the BBC, the Tories are making all national museums free and the NDP promises to make it possible to earn a living with a fine-arts degree.
Non-Natives get to choose between which tax policies and luxury goods they’ll be receiving from the federal government, while these same parties are telling Natives that they promise to obey the law and provide drinking water and, at the high end, equality. It’s incredible that in 2019, Canadian federal party leaders boast of providing equality to Indigenous people. It reminds me of an old Chris Rock comedy routine, or a heavily censored and paraphrased version of it:
You know the worst thing about these people? They always want some credit for some stuff they supposed to do. These people will brag about some stuff a normal man just does. They’ll say something like, "I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb mother------! What are you talking about? What kind of ignorance is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having mother------!
It’s a low bar, Indigenous policy, and we’re left with the decision to choose which one of these people will follow through on their promise not to break the law.
Back in Kwantlen, my head is still aching from the harsh questioning I received after introducing a governance document to the room. With the meeting over, the same people who were red in the face with frustration or anger a few minutes before now shrug their shoulders when I ask who they’re planning to vote for. The dominant view is expressed by Coleen: “We have the NDP, we have the Liberals, we have the Conservatives, we have the Greens, we have the independents. Looking at the overall picture over the past 25 years, all the parties, they all have something that went against us. Why should I get involved?”
It’s a good question — one I expect a record low number of Indigenous voters will be considering, should they choose to head to the polls on Oct 21.