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What You Need To Know About The Biggest Indigenous Issues This Election

From bringing back our children to the climate emergency, these issues should concern everyone.

A teepee set up on the lawn of Parliament Hill to receive walkers of Blinding Light Walk - Tiger Lily, who walked from Sudbury to Ottawa to call for changes to the Indian Act, in Ottawa, on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. (Photo: The Canadian Press / Justin Tang)

A teepee set up on the lawn of Parliament Hill to receive walkers of Blinding Light Walk – Tiger Lily, who walked from Sudbury to Ottawa to call for changes to the Indian Act, in Ottawa, on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. (Photo: The Canadian Press / Justin Tang)

One of the first things to learn about Indigenous communities is that we are not alike. Supporters of decolonization resist the idea that we are a singular voting block. Yet there are some shared concerns and major issues in Indigenous communities that are of importance for everyone going to the polls this September.

The discovery of graves and the uneven implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action, not to mention the more than 51 long-term boil water advisories for First Nations across Canada, show that there is still work to be done.

Bring back our children

In May, the country was shaken by the news of 215 bodies of Indigenous children found on the site of a former Kamloops residential school, tangible proof of the mistreatment of Indigenous children at boarding schools. Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair has told media that the commission documented the deaths of over 6000 residential school children. The bodies of Indigenous children are still being uncovered at residential schools so there is not a final number at this time.

These findings from ground-penetrating radar further reinforced what survivors told the TRC. However, a June poll by Abacus data reported that almost 70 per cent of Canadians said they had been unaware of the severity of abuses in the residential school system until the graves were found.

The repatriation of children’s bodies to their communities is a priority for the communities affected.

The process of identifying remains isn’t something to be rushed, says Dr. Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta. “For most First Nations it is a journey,” she says. “The first stage is not to go out using ground-penetrating radar to look for graves. There’s a lot of background that needs to happen in terms of bringing together communities and providing supports for survivors trying to come to a consensus about what should happen.”

Despite the headlines and attention when the news of grave sites first broke, the findings of grave sites and the grief of communities has not remained on the front pages of newspapers, and it also hasn’t been a prevalent election issue.

In July, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh visited the Kamloops former residential school: “I just wanted to get a better sense of what it was like,” he said. At a press conference that day, Singh reiterated that the NDP is committed to implementing the 94 calls to action in the TRC report. He also called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt federal court appeals that are currently taking place, in an effort to reverse two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders concerning discrimination against Indigenous children. And he said the NDP is committed to providing more funding for Indigenous communities, and will work to address the harms done from intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was asked about his position on the flags on federal buildings, which Trudeau has said shall remain at half-mast in honour of children who died at residential schools until further notice. O’Toole told reporters he believes, “We should be proud to put our flag back up.”
He continued, “I’ve been talking to Indigenous leaders since I became Opposition leader. Reconciliation will be important for me, as will be pride in Canada… It’s not a time to tear down Canada, it’s a time to recommit to build it to be the country we know it can be. And reconciliation is very important and should be important to all Canadians.”

The Conservative platform commits to implementing TRC calls to action 71 through 76, which relate to missing Indigenous children and releasing burial information about the students who died in care. The platform also commits to funding the investigation of all former residential schools in Canada where unmarked graves may be found.

Trudeau met with Chief Cadmus Delorme in Saskatchewan, where 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. In a media statement, Trudeau said, “The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear, and the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need to bring these terrible wrongs to light. While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can—and we will—tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.”

In 2015, Trudeau promised to reset relations between Canada and Indigenous people. That is a pretty vague promise, and many feel that he has not fulfilled his promises to Indigenous people. One of the major campaign promises was fulfilled: a 2019 inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. The 2021 Liberal platform now says that the Liberals will “confront the legacy of residential schools” by providing funding for research for discovering unmarked graves.

Before his first election victory in 2015, Trudeau had also promised to address all 94 calls to action set out by the TRC report, but as of last year had covered only eight, according to the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led think tank.

The climate emergency

In July, as the country was gripped by an unprecedented heat wave, a major new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released, and a grim picture of the reality of climate change became even clearer to Canadians. (Chatelaine covered this subject and its connection to the 2021 election here.) However, five months before the IPCC made international news, Indigenous Climate Action, an Indigenous-led organization concerned about climate change, released a report titled Decolonizing Climate Policy in Canada. The report notes that although Indigenous people are referenced repeatedly in discussions on climate change, many of the policies put forth by the Trudeau government conflict with federal commitments to engage with First Nations in a way that upholds their rights to self-determination. Issues around land sovereignty and pipeline expansion through Indigenous communities still need to be addressed by all Canadian political parties.

The report states, “The Federal climate plans egregiously fail to address the fossil fuel industry as a driver of climate change, a violator of Indigenous rights, and a major contributor to the vulnerabilization of Indigenous communities and Nations by way of impacts on waters, lands, livelihoods and food systems.”

Many of the issues Indigenous communities face are interconnected, which Trudeau noted on a panel on gender equality he spoke at in Argentina. “What does a gender lens have to do with building this new highway or this new pipeline? Well, there are impacts when you bring construction workers into a rural area—there are social impacts because they are mostly male construction workers. How are you adjusting or adapting to those [impacts]?” asked Trudeau. He was widely mocked in conservative media.

The authors of the final report of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women’s inquiry agree with him. In a section on economic insecurity and government neglect in Inuit Nunangat, the 2019 report notes that “extractive development can pose additional threats to Inuit women’s security, as the high number of transient workers at mining camps can create working and living environments where sexual harassment and abuse of Inuit women take place.” Statistics reveal that Indigenous women represent only 4 percent of the Canadian population in 2016, but they comprised nearly 50 percent of victims of human trafficking. (Approximately one-quarter of human trafficking victims are are under the age of 18.)

At the same time, some Indigenous communities are supportive of oil and gas projects, as they provide funding and resources to their community. One such place is Enoch Cree First Nation. There, Chief Billy Morin attended a blessing ceremony when the reserve became a stockpile site for the Trans Mountain pipeline. In Alberta, where the economy is tied to oil and gas revenues, many Indigenous leaders often speak out in favour of extraction industries.

This aligns particularly well with the Conservative platform, which focuses on working with Indigenous-led businesses. Their policy pledges to work with organizations, such as the First Nations Major Project Coalition, the Indigenous Resource Network, the Indian Resource Council, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers, the National Coalition of Chiefs, and First Nations LNG Alliance, to support communities that wish to become partners in natural resource extraction.

The NDP promise to ensure that Indigenous people in Canada will get a seat at the table when it comes to discussions about the environment and conservation. The platform reads that a “New Democrat government will work jointly with Indigenous leadership and communities to develop coordinated action plans to respond to climate change emergencies like wildfires and floods. This work will be informed by Indigenous traditional and ecological knowledge and legal systems, and include improving existing infrastructure, developing new infrastructure and supporting response efforts to keep people safe.”

Indigenous people don’t vote as a monolith, and many who live on-reserve may have a viewpoint based on what they have experienced, but the prosperity and health of their communities is a concern that should be shared by everyone. None of the political parties agree to match funding to First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities with the money spent on developing Canadian infrastructure, but the Liberals and NDP do promise increased funding in these areas.

Land Back and land sovereignty

Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and artist, describes the Land Back movement this way: “It’s about self-determination for our Peoples here that should include some access to the territories and resources in a more equitable fashion, and for us to have control over how that actually looks.”

Land Back emerged after Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It asks Canada to live up to the treaty agreements that Indigenous people signed with the representatives of the Crown in Canada, many of which were to share the land and water “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,” as many Elders say.

Treaties are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous people. For the Indigenous people who signed these agreements, they are considered sacred, living pacts. There were 70 treaties signed between First Nations and the Crown between 1701 and 1923. There have been about 25 ‘modern’ treaties signed since 1975.

Land Back is also concerned with regions that are not included in existing treaties, including the Atlantic provinces, areas of British Columbia, eastern Ontario and Quebec, many of which are now the subject of land titles disputes and treaty negotiations moving through the Canadian courts. Indigenous land ownership is a complex legal situation that can differ from province to province, but most Indigenous communities point to the 2014 Supreme Court of Canada William decision, which recognized “aboriginal title” of the Tsilhqot’in nation to 1,750 square kilometres of their land in central British Columbia, acknowledging the nation’s right to use and manage the land and to reap its economic benefits.

Many of those disputes are related to resource extraction and climate change. In 2014, Atikamewkw First Nation declared sovereignty over its territory, which covers 80,000 square kilometres in Quebec. Chief Christian Awashish and a few dozen community members from Opitciwan First Nation (one of three Atikamekw communities) filed a provincial lawsuit in 2019 to settle a land claim that has been in negotiation for 40 years. The Atikamekw never signed a treaty, and yet their villages were flooded in 1918 to create dams.

A few weeks ago, hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs spoke to The Tyee about two recent spills that have contaminated their territory, the site of a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline. Construction is currently ongoing on the 670-kilometre pipeline in northern British Columbia, where the Unist’to’ten resistance camp was set up in January 2020, before being a January 7 RCMP raid on their barricades, and an additional raid in February where four people were arrested.

“The Oil and Gas Commission never informed us at all about the recent spills,” says Mike Ridsdale, an environmental assessment coordinator who represents the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. “They’re supposed to be working with us. For them to let me know two to three days later is not being right on the ball. Even on the report, it said that the Wet’suwet’en were notified. I have no messages and no emails.”

Land negotiations are of massive importance to local communities. And while many nations disagree among themselves over the best course of action, all Indigenous communities know the importance of being able to make independent decisions about where they live. Many believe that questions of resource development and sustainability should be answered by the people it most affects.

None of the major political parties address the issue of Indigenous land sovereignty and governance in their platforms directly. The NDP come the closest, with their statement that they “are committed to good-faith, consent-based engagement and negotiations consistent with the Tsilhqot’in decision, an approach that honours Canada’s legal and constitutional obligation.”

There’s no one Indigenous issue, there are many complex problems facing the communities and Indigenous people and allies have a lot to think about as they go to the polls. Choose wisely!