AFN chief looks to turn new leaf with Poilievre from Harper-era tensions

Click to play video: 'Phil Fontaine and AFN Chief Cindy Woodhouse honoured at MKO ceremony'
Phil Fontaine and AFN Chief Cindy Woodhouse honoured at MKO ceremony
On Tuesday, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. honoured Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and newly minted AFN National Chief Cindy Woodhouse for the path they’ve paved, and are paving, for Indigenous rights. – Jan 16, 2024

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is trying to make inroads with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, hoping to forestall the tensions and angst that marked the party’s last time in power.

The legacy of the Idle No More movement has shaped how young Indigenous activists and leaders view the Conservatives, an image that still hangs over the party nearly a decade later.

“I want to be optimistic that he will work with First Nations,” Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said of Poilievre in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press.

“Young people were so frustrated (with the previous Conservative government), and out of that was born Idle No More. That’s certainly not the treaty relationship that I want to see.”

Idle No More was a widespread Indigenous-led protest movement triggered in part by the Jobs and Growth Act, a sweeping and controversial omnibus bill introduced in  2012 by Stephen Harper’s majority government.

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Indigenous Peoples feared the bill would diminish their rights while making it easier for governments and industry to develop resources without a strict environmental assessment.

The movement grew to encompass environmental and Indigenous rights more broadly, and earned widespread support across Canada and around the world.

Woodhouse, who was elected national chief in December, recalls well how First Nations leaders and the federal Conservative government of the day simply weren’t sitting at the same table.

Her meeting with Poilievre last month went well, she said. Shortly after her election, Woodhouse also posed for photos with Tory MPs when she attended the party’s annual Christmas gathering.

She urged Poilievre to vote against Bill C-53, legislation introduced by the Liberals that seeks to recognize Métis governments in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

First Nations have mounted fierce opposition to the bill, fearing it could impinge on their own rights.

While Poilievre has met with Woodhouse, he has yet to attend one of the AFN’s national assemblies, where hundreds of First Nations chiefs meet to vote on resolutions and discuss priorities they want to take to the federal government.

Click to play video: 'Who is the new AFN national chief Cindy Woodhouse?'
Who is the new AFN national chief Cindy Woodhouse?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose successful 2015 campaign promised a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples, often shows up, as does NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

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Since taking over as Conservative leader in September 2022, Poilievre’s AFN presence has been limited to pre-recorded video greetings.

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But he has met personally with chiefs to promise a Conservative government that would stay out of their way — particularly when it comes to generating economic growth through the development of oil and gas projects.

A proposed resource revenue bill is one of the commitments Poilievre has made to dozens of First Nations leaders, said spokesman Sebastian Skamski.

The plan would “advance economic reconciliation by ensuring First Nations have the ability to collect more of the revenue from projects on their lands,” Skamski said.

That, he added, would allow them to “take back control of their money, decisions, and lives from Ottawa gatekeepers.”

Skamski did not say whether Poilievre plans to attend in person when the AFN holds its next national assembly in July.

Poilievre’s idea of economic reconciliation may not be embraced by everyone, said Eva Jewell, research director at the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research centre at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The Conservatives envision Indigenous Peoples reaping the rewards of natural resource development in their own territories, while many First Nations leaders are more interested in restitution, the return of Indigenous territory and a more constructive relationship with the federal government.

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Poilievre also opposes making First Nations pay the Liberal price on carbon and shares the AFN’s opposition to the government’s ban on handguns and some popular hunting rifles.

But when it comes to how Conservatives are received by the chiefs, Harper’s shadow still looms large.

Former national chief Shawn Atleo long accused Harper of failing to make good on his promises around education, the implementation of treaties and economic development.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was booed during an assembly in 2018 when he told chiefs to wait for his election platform in order to learn how his priorities would differ from Harper.

Click to play video: 'Inquiry into missing indigenous women'
Inquiry into missing indigenous women

And a smattering of boos greeted Poilievre’s video remarks to the assembly in December 2022, including from Nipissing First Nation chief Scott McLeod.

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After it was over, McLeod walked up to a podium to tell organizers, “Do not ever again put a video like that ahead of our residential school survivors.”

Poilievre’s absence chafed more than his message, McLeod later suggested in an interview. He counts himself among the chiefs who are keen to hear from the Conservatives as part of a non-partisan approach to government relations.

“I don’t hold high hopes,” McLeod acknowledged of how relations between Ottawa and First Nations would likely fare under a Conservative government.

“But having said that, I think I’m willing to see what they have to offer before I take the gloves off.”

McLeod described a recent conversation with Ontario Conservative MP Jamie Schmale, who serves as vice-chair of the Commons committee on Indigenous and northern affairs.

The chief said he raised concerns with Schmale about the Conservative leader’s track record on Indigenous issues, including comments he made — and later apologized for — in 2008 about the cost of compensating residential school survivors.

Schmale said he would try to schedule a meeting with Poilievre, but it has yet to happen, McLeod said: “If he hasn’t got the time, then that says a lot.”

Skamski denied McLeod’s version of events, describing “elements” of it as “categorically false.” McLeod was never guaranteed a meeting, he added.

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McLeod said First Nations leaders fear a Conservative government would seek to reduce spending, with Indigenous priorities high on the list of cuts.

“It’s already getting tight,” he said. “We better think long and hard before we think of anybody but the Liberal party (to support).”

Cindy Blackstock, a longtime First Nations child welfare advocate who has sparred with both Liberals and Conservatives, suggested it’s still too early to know what to expect.

“I’ve always measured governments by what they do,” Blackstock said, “not what they say.”

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