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On Oct. 19 Canadians will elect a new federal government, and on that day they will decide whether or not they will be Idle No More.
Successive governments have commissioned numerous reports, supposedly with the intention of reframing the relationship and closing socio-economic gaps between First Peoples and settler Canadians. Millions of pages and hundreds of recommendations later the Canadian public is collectively asking itself “Why are things still so bad?”
The Liberal government’s 1996 response to the 440 recommendations of the landmark report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was called “Gathering Strength”, but was soon dubbed “Gathering Dust” after it became clear that there was little political appetite to put action to the five-year study.
This past spring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced its report – this time commissioned by a Conservative government – that was twice as long as RCAP, cost more – about $70 million – and produced 94 recommendations to improve Canada’s tattered relationship with First Peoples. The Harper caucus has greeted the report with virtual silence, despite comments by such respected Canadians as Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin that the TRC report confirms that her country has committed cultural genocide against indigenous peoples.
It seems that the more evidence that is produced to demonstrate federal failures to honour treaty and aboriginal rights, the more evasive successive governments have been in shirking their constitutional obligations. Meanwhile, Canada’s citizens are miles ahead of their politicians in seeking justice and reform. They have joined their indigenous relatives in round dances across the country, lending their support to First Peoples who say they will be Idle No More in the face of ongoing injustices.
Every university in the country has now adopted a policy on improving education for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students. Some provincial school systems and post-secondary institutions are requiring all students to participate in Indigenous Studies. Canadians need to know that the likelihood of Indian residential school students dying was greater than that for Canadian troops who participated in World War II.
But, instead of leading the charge to improve life for First Peoples, federal political parties have been missing in action.
Conservatives: On June 11, 2008 Stephen Harper issued a nationally-televised apology for the crimes committed against Native children in the notorious network of government-sanctioned residential schools. He said there was no room in Canada for the attitudes which spawned such devastating social experiments. Since then he has closed 134 drug treatment centres for First Peoples, ignored widespread calls to conduct a public inquiry into the disappearances and deaths of 2,000 Indigenous women in the past 30 years, and created policies that would make it more difficult for First Peoples to vote.
On Harper’s watch, children like Shannon Koostachin, who traveled to Ottawa to ask for a school in her James Bay community, are sent home empty-handed; Indigenous leaders like Cindy Blackstock are targeted for harassment when they ask why Ottawa provides 22 per cent less funding for First Nations child welfare agencies than provinces provide for Children’s Aid Societies; and over 100 First Nations communities live with permanent boil water advisories.
Adding insult to injury, the most recent auditor-general’s report revealed that the Conservative government withheld over one billion dollars of taxpayers’ money that had been earmarked for First Peoples. And the prime minister boycotted this month’s Council of the Federation meeting in St. John’s, where provincial premiers discussed priority issues with First Nations leaders.
Liberals: Former Prime Minister Paul Martin has been a fierce critic of Mr. Harper’s treatment of First Peoples. He is particularly outspoken on the issue of underfunding of First Nations education and has set up his own education charity. Current Liberal Party Leader, and would-be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has said that “the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of aboriginal peoples in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation central to what Canada is as a nation.”
However neither of these men has acknowledged that it was Paul Martin’s Liberal government which capped annual increases to First Nations education budgets at 2%. That arbitrary 20-year restriction is responsible for a huge gap between the funding available to enable First Nations schools to hire the best teachers — or equip their schools with computers, libraries, or lab equipment — and the budgets enjoyed by provincial schools.
New Democrats: It remains to be seen if the pledges made by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to place Indigenous issues at the top of his party’s political agenda would translate into action if the polls are correct and he forms the next federal government Oct. 19. Mulcair’s participation in the TRC meetings was more than pro forma and caucus members Romeo Saganash, Charlie Angus, and Niki Ashton have effectively used Question Period to give FNMI issues high profile on the floor of the House of Commons.
Both the Liberals and the NDP have pledged that, if elected to power, they will align national policies with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – a powerful statement of principles that the Harper Conservatives officially endorsed but have since dismissed as an “aspirational” document. It is significant that Alberta’s newly-elected NDP Premier Rachel Notley has instructed her cabinet ministers to respect UNDRIP principles in the operation of their departments.
This Oct. 19 First Peoples will learn whether they can finally expect Canada to match its words with actions. Countless promises made in treaties have been broken, and expectations raised by apologies from prime ministers and hundreds of recommendations in reports like RCAP, the TRC, and the Ipperwash Inquiry into the death of Anthony Dudley George have been dashed by decades of self-imposed government paralysis.
With a federal election on the horizon, the hustings are swarming with candidates and abuzz with more promises for a better future. From a First Nations perspective, the candidates in those 338 ridings will determine if Canada will finally begin its journey towards genuine reconciliation, or carry on with colonialism-as-usual. Observers note that First Nations residents – who traditionally have a 20-per-cent lower participation rate in federal elections than other voters – could determine the outcomes in as many as 51 of those ridings across the country.
Regardless, it is not too much to ask each and every candidate in every federal riding to identify just one of the 94 recommendations from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that they are willing to champion in Parliament if elected.
Among their more pressing legislative responsibilities, the MPs elected by Canadians on Oct. 19 will be laying plans to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday party in 2017.
For Canada’s sake, it is hoped they understand that 148 years of speeches by their predecessors have not produced the opportunity for reconciliation with First Peoples that now presents itself.
To take action, sign this petition:
Catherine Murton Stoehr is a historian who has taught at Nipissing University.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation who has served as communications director for the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of Ontario Indians.