Unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper decides otherwise, the upcoming federal election is going to be held on October 19th, 2015. For Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, a lot is at stake. Harper’s government has clearly set its own priorities by cutting Aboriginal funding across the board nearly 60% without consulting Aboriginal organizations. In addition to cutting funds for Aboriginal education, serious housing issues on reserves like Attawapiskat remain unresolved, and the Harper government withdrew from the historic Kelowna Accord set by his Liberal predecessor.
The Idle-No-More movement sparked Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s six week hunger strike two years ago. Her Northern Ontario First Nation sits along the Attawapiskat River near a diamond mine, and their suffering is reflected in the misery of many reserve communities across the country. Media brought it to national attention with shocking images of children living in unheated shacks and trailers during a northern Ontario winter. The Red Cross had to swoop in to provide necessary aid, embarrassing the Prime Minister and his government. Chief Spence paid a price for that embarrassment, though. She ended up facing the brunt of the Harper government’s attack blaming her and her band council for their own poverty. The Aboriginal Affairs Minister at the time, John Duncan, stripped the band council of its authority over finances and imposed a consultant to run Attawapiskat’s affairs, a move harshly criticized by the Federal Court as “unreasonable.” The Idle-No-More movement said it wanted to “stop the Harper government from passing more laws and legislation that will further erode treaty and indigenous rights and the rights of all Canadians.” Idle-No-More called on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty.
Harper must also contend with the new AFN leadership under National Chief Perry Bellegarde. The new National Chief warned it will no longer be business as usual when it comes to development on First Nations land. In his victory speech, Bellegarde singled out pipelines and energy development as one of the frontlines in his battle to put First Nations on equal footing with the rest of Canada. “To the people across this great land, I say to you, that the values of fairness and tolerance which Canada exports to the world are a lie when it comes to our people,” Bellegarde said. “Canada will no longer develop pipelines, no longer develop transmission lines or any infrastructure on our lands as business as usual.” Bellegarde pledged opposition to any project that deprives First Nations a share of the profits. “We will no longer accept poverty and hopelessness while resource companies and governments grow fat off our lands and territories and resources. If our lands and resources are to be developed, it will be done only with our fair share of the royalties, with our ownership of the resources and jobs for our people. It will be done on our terms and our timeline.”
The Prime Minister has often touted Canada as an energy giant due to Alberta’s vast oil sands. His government wrote and legislated omnibus bills to remove environmental protections and laws requiring proper consultations with First Nations for resources and pipeline developments. Recently though, and to the Prime Minister’s surprise, oil prices have tanked. His lack of investment and interest in other industries is now obvious. His lack of preparedness for plummeting oil prices has caused his finance minister to delay the budget by months, figuring out how to keep their promise of a balanced budget in 2015. The Bank of Canada, forecasting turbulent economic times, has lowered interest rates, and executives at Canada’s Big Five banks are expecting another rate cut of .25% in the near future, apparently expecting little to no economic growth for the nation overall.
Harper also faces significant backlash on the issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls. According to an Angus Reid poll, 73% of Canadians want a national inquiry on this issue. The opposition parties, every Aboriginal leader and organization in the country, and all 13 Premiers (including the conservative ones) have called for national inquiry on this grave issue, but the Prime Minister heartlessly stated in an interview with CBC just before Christmas that a national inquiry “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” Harper said the government can spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” and simply “get the same report for the 41st or 42nd time.” The missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls could become a hot election issue, and may hand the Conservatives a loss in the upcoming election. The Native Women’s Association of Canada president Michele Audet was very critical of Harper, saying he has a double standard for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. “It could be one woman or 1,000 Aboriginal women, he doesn’t care at all,” said Audet. “But when a young woman commits suicide because she was bullied through Facebook, he will go and visit the family and say he will do everything in his power to make sure his government puts in place legislation that will not tolerate any bullying on the internet.”
The Leader of the Opposition, NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, has not been vocal or effective on issues facing Aboriginal peoples. His predecessor, the late Jack Layton, inspired a hope never seen before in Canadian politics, but since Mulcair has become leader, the NDP’s national support had fallen, and more than half of their previous support in Quebec has been handed to the Liberals under Justin Trudeau. If current trends continue, the NDP will again fall into third place in the House on election day.
The Liberal Party under Interim Leader Bob Rae and current Leader Justin Trudeau saw gains in national support. When in comes to Aboriginal issues, Trudeau hasn’t said much, but his personal recruitment of AFN Regional Chief for BC Jody Wilson-Raybould to run in the new Vancouver-Granville riding is promising. As of January 24th, the Liberals currently have eleven Aboriginal candidates, with several others running for the Liberals nomination in their respective ridings, including Native Women’s Association president Michele Audet.
Daniol Coles, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, will run in the newly formed riding of Edmonton-Griesbach. He is disappointed that the government spends more time fighting First Nations than working with them. Coles said the Liberals vowed in 2014 not to repeat “the mistakes of the past and strive for meaningful consultation when considering legislation and policy that impact the right of indigenous peoples.” That included a resolution formally rejecting Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s infamous 1969 white paper that proposed an end to the Indian Act and calling it “a serious mistake.”
According to Coles, who chaired the Liberal Party’s Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission for two years, the apology set the younger Trudeau apart from his father in the eyes of Aboriginal chiefs. In Alberta, where the memory of Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program still stings, saying sorry is not insignificant. “It was groundbreaking,” Coles said.
On the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, Trudeau said the Prime Minister is “on the wrong side of history” in his refusal to launch a public inquiry. In the aftermath of the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, an Aboriginal girl from Winnipeg, Trudeau said, “My heart goes out to the families of not just Tina Fontaine but of all the missing and murdered over the years. The prime minister has shown himself not to be simply… just out of touch with Canadians on this issue, but also on the wrong side of history.”
As for economic development, Trudeau will be taking a page from Prime Minister Paul Martin’s playbook. Martin is the first Prime Minister in Canadian history to change the approach towards Aboriginal peoples in this country. Motivated to close the gaps in education, health care, housing, and economics between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, Prime Minister Martin encouraged Aboriginal leaders to present their own priorities to the government, including when it came to negotiating the now scrapped historic Kelowna Accord. Since leaving office, Prime Minister Martin has dedicated his life to bettering the lives of Aboriginal peoples through his Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, and his business initiative Capefund, a $50 million fund to help Aboriginal businesses and start-ups enter international markets. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have signalled that a Government of Canada with Trudeau as Prime Minister will conduct a national inquiry for the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. This election campaign and the results will surely affect Aboriginal peoples from coast to coast to coast.