Canadian political party leaders debated reconciliation on Thursday night, but Indigenous leaders say that in the midst of the mud-slinging, some of their arguments lacked clarity and distinction.
Too often, said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, “First Nations” was used as a placeholder identity for all Indigenous people in Canada, and with few days left in the federal election campaign, that raises his doubts about the “depth of understanding” of the leadership candidates.
“We would hope that in the context of climate change or reconciliation, Inuit-specific priorities would be mentioned alongside First Nations and Métis,” he explained.
“Inuit also have great challenges with clean drinking water, but the focus is exclusively on First Nations on reserve within this debate and the election context.”
The observation resonates with David Chartrand, president of the Métis National Council, who said he stands in partnership with his First Nations and Inuit brothers and sisters, but would like the candidates to have at least acknowledged Métis concerns and priorities.
“That was the disturbing part for us watching it, you know, in anticipation waiting for the word ‘Métis Nation’ to be referenced, that your issues are important,” he said.
“That was kind of disappointing not to hear from no one.”
There are roughly 400,000 Métis citizens in Canada, and Chartrand said the leaders ought to have to outlined specific financial commitments to support their businesses and economic opportunities.
In the course of the two-hour debate, federal leadership hopefuls covered a variety of reconciliation topics, including boil water advisories, violence against Indigenous women and girls, the restoration of trust with Indigenous peoples, and the dismantling of the Indian Act.
Leaders including Liberal Justin Trudeau, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh, Conservative Erin O’Toole, and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul also talked about implementing action items from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, also known as MMIWG.
All four, however, failed to outline clear timelines for those commitments, and Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations said that’s a red flag.
“These are the issues that need to be dealt with and have a timeline and resources brought forward,” he told Global News.
“I think perhaps there should be a concerted debate, whether it’s an hour or two with the leaders, on the relationship with Indigenous peoples.”
Chief Teegee also lamented the lack of attention paid to aligning Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to resolving land and fisheries disputes in which Indigenous peoples have clearly outlined rights.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said the three-minute discussion of tackling the MMIWG crisis lacked substance, but she was impressed by Paul’s insistence on the importance of having Indigenous leadership present on the debate stage.
“Fifty-two per cent of Canadians told Nanos Polls that they wanted this issue of reconciliation — it’s important to them and it will affect how they vote, and it’ll affect the Indigenous people,” she said.
“And we didn’t hear — or I didn’t hear a lot of work into the MMIWG or even the children, the remains.”
National Chief Elmer St. Pierre of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents Indigenous folks without status and those living off of reserves, said he was also disturbed that two-spirit people were left out of the discussion on missing on Thursday.
Like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Assembly of First Nations, the congress has released a policy document of priorities for the federal election. None of the concerns specific to the Indigenous people he represents were raised in the debate.
Obed said he’s encouraged that reconciliation has emerged as a theme and priority in the federal election campaign, but there are areas in which the political leaders could refine their positions.
“Partisan politics on Indigenous issues sometimes discredits the work of Indigenous governance and Indigenous leadership working with whatever government is in place,” he explained.
“If a partisan political leader wants to attack the government on its record on Indigenous peoples, sometimes the individual completely discredits the work that was done in partnership and that’s really unfortunate.”
He joined other Indigenous leaders in encouraging Indigenous citizens to vote, no matter who they vote for.