Are Aboriginal issues on the table? That's a question a lot of people are asking after Federal party leaders took the stage for the first debate of the campaign last Thursday night.
As the weeks of campaigning continue on party platforms should become clearer but I wanted to know where party's stand and what I need to look for.
So I called up Ken Coates, a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and MacDonald-Laurier Institute's Senior Policy Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues. If you want to hear the audio listen to the latest Meeting Ground podcast.
Keep reading for the interview.
This interview has been edited for style and space.
KM: First things first, what do we need to know before we get into this?
KC: In previous elections we have actually not had national political parties try to make much of a big deal about aboriginal issues.
The reason was the general political view was that it was a dangerous thing to be supportive of aboriginal folks on the policy front.
There were more people that were likely to vote against a party that was supportive of Aboriginal People than to vote for them. In a large part because historically Aboriginal People have been connected up to the Liberal Party nationally, there wasn't historically a lot of movement around and Aboriginal people didn't vote.
So, the number one change that we see happening already is the fact that aboriginal issues are going to be front and centre, they are going to be discussed fairly openly, and that's a major shift in Canadian politics and one that's been way, way overdue.
KM: Alright so now we are going to look at each national party. Obviously we can't do the details, because we don't know them, but what are the broad overviews of each party when it comes to aboriginal issues.
Let's start with the New Democratic Party.
KC: The NDP came out very strongly in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Interim Report... They came out a bit too quickly. Those recommendations are very complicated, they haven't been fully costed... It's one of those things where it's easy to say we are supportive of all those things but not very practical.
The other side of this is the NDP have a very historic commitment to social justice and to a firm belief that government can make a fundamental difference in the lives of Canadians, so one of the things they are doing is moving that agenda into the aboriginal sphere. They are making it very clear that they see themselves not just doing more social programming and economic programming, but actually, and Mulcair has said this himself, that he believes that in fact the Aboriginal People and the NDP government can achieve far greater collaborative success. So he's actually made a firm commitment to reconciliation, to actually using the levers of power in government, the government programs, to actually listen more carefully to Aboriginal people and consult with them and make them partners in confederation.
So that's a fairly strong series of statements that he has made already. We don't know the specifics and it will be very interesting to see as the days and months go by how that actually translates into specific program initiatives.
KM: The NDP seem to have a good relationship, currently, with the Assembly of First Nations and the national Chief. Will that help?
KC: NDP supports the AFN approach, which is based on aboriginal and treaty rights and a more inclusive approach to governance. So to agree that being on side with the AFN is going to help, that's fairly significant.
The bigger problem the NDP faces is not having as much experience directing with First Nations on the ground.
As a national party they are really sort of a blank slate in terms of what they are going to do on the ground.
In one sense the position of the NDP is that of an opposition party, "we don't like what the government is doing. We don't like what the Minister Valcourt is doing and we are going to do it differently." What is missing so far is the specifics of what that means.
And the problems from the (Canadian) government's point of view, regardless of which party actually comes into power, is there are very divided opinions in First Nations communities. The AFN speaks for the Chiefs, not necessarily for the people on the ground.
There are a lot of First Nations people across the country who made very strong commitments to economic development and collaboration with corporations in the resource field, there are a lot First Nations people who are very sovereigntist and are basically standing tall but far removed from government as much as they can. So, it's not an easy field to navigate and it's not clear yet where in that broader spectrum the NDP really plans to put their focus.
KM: Alright, let's move onto the Liberals. You had mentioned that historically the Aboriginal vote is linked to the Liberal party. What are the broad issues the Liberals face when it comes to aboriginal issues?
KC: Well the biggest issue with the Liberals is asking the simple question of "why, when there is such a strong historic connection... why more First Nations people haven't been voting?"
You wonder why more First Nations people haven't climbed on board. The number one question for the Liberals with aboriginal folks in Canada is whether they can get them to the polls, whether they can convince First Nations people that they should break away from the earlier patterns and get involved in national politics, which they haven't been doing in a large number.
The Liberals have to separate themselves from their historical legacy. If you look back over the last 20, 30 years the Liberals were in power for quite a long time... They actually received the report of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and did very little with it. It was Stephen Harper who made the apology for residential schools not Prime Minister Chretien. So they have a bit of a legacy issue to sort of deal with.
There are an awful lot of aboriginal folks who sort of understands that the Liberals sound like they are more on line with First Nations people but they didn't deliver.
Prime Minister Martin has been a huge advocate for aboriginal policies and programs but a lot of First Nation people say he is advocating now after retirement but he wasn't doing much when he was finance minister and prime minister... The view basically on that from the aboriginal side is "what have the Liberals done for us?" They are very good at saying they are on board but what have they actually done in the past and what are they going to change
KM: So it will be reconciling a history of talk without a lot of action? What about their response to the Truth and Reconciliation executive summary?
KC: When they came out with the TRC report I personally believe they came out too quickly and too uncritically. They didn't say "we are going to look at the 94 recommendations, we are going to sit down with First Nations and decide which ones we are going to deal with first. We are going to focus on the ones with the greatest impact." They just said we support and endorse these kinds of initiatives.
That's actually very common Liberal approach to First Nations issues, they say the right things -- believe in economic development, believe in social development, believe in self governance --- they've been saying that for a long time. The trick this time around for Trudeau and the Liberals is actually be specific.
Among all the things that might be done, what is going to be done in the first year, second year, third year of a mandate? What can they show First Nations people that they are going to get a real return for their support for the Liberal party, which has been there historically but not in very large numbers.
KM: What happens as the campaigning moves forward?
KC: If you follow the trajectory of the election, I think what's going to happen is they are listening closely to the electorate to find out if aboriginal issues are really a high priority. In the past they haven't been.
If the Liberal party came out and said we are going to add 50 per cent to the budget of Aboriginal Affairs, they would get more support from aboriginal people perhaps but they'd probably lose a much larger number of potential voters in the non-aboriginal community.
People are not confident about spending more government resources on Aboriginal people, even though we desperately need it.
One of the conundrums for any party, particularly the Liberal party, is you've got to be careful you don't alienate non-aboriginal voters. Which, from a First Nations perspective, is extremely frustrating because they have such great needs and everybody knows that something substantial has to be done, but it's not yet clear that Aboriginal People are really high on the national political agenda.
My guess is over the next weeks to a month you are going to see some smaller conversations around the question of aboriginal folks, aboriginal policy, First Nation issues, AFN demands... and if the public at large shows interest you will start getting more specifics. You will start getting some competition between the NDP and the Liberals in particular, over what specific things they will do or consider doing in the first couple years of a mandate.
KM: Alright let's move onto the Conservative Party .
KC: The government always has the opportunity and the obligation to run on their record and so there is a fairly clear indication of where the Conservative Party wants to see aboriginal policy go.
They are very strongly committed to economic development, they do not see the expansion of the social well fare programs as being the long term solution to aboriginal issues. They are very strongly supportive of self-government when First Nations communities are ready to take on additional responsibilities.
They have signed a whole series of land claim deals and modern treaties and they are open to signing more. They have done some pretty substantial things; they have improved the specific claims process making more settlements for higher sums of money... the apology for residential schools... So the record for Conservatives is actually much more positive than people think.
It was Stephen Harper who stood with National Chief Shawn Atleo and basically signed an agreement to increase funding for schools by $1.5 billion... Even the record of education and needs of urgent requirements in those communities, it's not as though the Tories have been terrible. But they've also been somewhat standoffish.
First Nations were not happy with the response to Chief Theresa Spence.
The AFN could well hold together on the question of the education funding (Chiefs rejected the Act and the national chief stepped down)... but that actually rebounds with support in the non-aboriginal community.
I look at the conservatives approach in this way, I think they have essentially developed a tool kit -- economic development, social development, cultural development, treaty rights, self government, all those types of things -- they developed a tool kit and they told First Nations "we don't want to have a national policy we want each First Nation to decide what's best for them."
This is a complicated field. Anyone who comes up and says they know the answer to First Nations issues and they have a solution that will bring a resolution for once and for all time, boy, they are smarter than I am... because this is one of the most complicated files in Canada. It takes long term commitment, and it takes a very sustained level of support and engagement with Aboriginal people and we haven't seen that yet.
KM: Since the rejection of the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, the Harper government and the AFN have had a damaged relationship. It seems, recently, that AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde has been encouraging people to vote, and it seems like he's pointing them away from the Conservatives. What does that mean for the Conservatives and for the AFN?
KC: The role of the national chief, Chief Bellegarde, is a really interesting one. I think it's one of the most difficult jobs in the country. He has 636 First Nation Chiefs which elected him and he has to find a consensus position among some very disparate cultural groups and people in very difficult economic, social, political circumstances. The job is extraordinarily difficult.
He has two things really going for him:
1) He is a very strong advocate of treaty and aboriginal rights. He is doing what every national chief should do, he is fighting to the finish to make sure the Government of Canada and the people of Canada honour all their obligations to aboriginal folks. If he backed down from that he wouldn't be national chief.
2) If you look at his experience in Saskatchewan... he is also a very practical person and he actually focuses on real results. So, on one hand he has this basic philosophical over arching umbrella approach of "we will respect the aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations People in Canada"... but he also at the same time is looking for practical solutions.
I think we are going to find he has taken a bit of a gamble coming out in favour of the opposition parties. The gamble is essentially to put himself at odds with the prime minister but he didn't do that by himself. That actually occurred when the chiefs turned down Shawn Atleo's plan on the educational funding. It's happened over a long period of time.
If the Conservatives win again, he is going to have to mend some fences.
I think there is a lot of room to move on any one of the three sides. The Liberal and NDP are going to have to put practical details on the ground. The Tories have practical details on the ground and they are going to have to look for the broader picture. So it's kind of an interesting balance between the three parties.
KM: Alright, so as we watch the next weeks unfold what are the top three things Aboriginal voters need to look for.
KC: If aboriginal voters were asking me "what should you look for?" I would say number one pay very little attention to platitudes. Don't be taken in by bold statements of "we love Aboriginal People. We are going to solve their problems ect, ect." I think aboriginal folks have a right to expect specifics. This issue has been dominating Canadian public affairs really since the 1960s. We don't need to reinvent things, we have lots of reports, lots of studies and lots of recommendations. So what specifically are the individual parties going to do?
Number two is will the Government of Canada allow First Nations to manage their own affairs? Are we actually going to see a situation where the department of Aboriginal Affairs plays a much lesser role in the lives of Aboriginal People? Where there is more authority granted to individual First Nations to make judgements and decisions on funding, less emphasis on reporting back to Ottawa, less emphasis on the technical relationships, the colonial relationships, between Aboriginal People and the Government of Canada?
Number three: where do Aboriginal Affairs fit within in the national list of priorities? We are very good with Aboriginal People, and have been for 40 years now, making it sound as though it's a real priority. Always talking about it being a national embarrassment , poor economic conditions, the loss of language, the loss of culture, the desperate social problems on many reserves across Canada, the problems of migration from reserves to urban areas, and we say "oh hands over our heart" and we say "we have to deal with it." Then when it comes down to it, it's number 42 on the list of priorities in terms of actually getting things done.
What I see, basically take a whole government approach to aboriginal affairs. If what you do is say "well that's over in that department, aboriginal issues are dealt over there" you basically absolve all the rest of the cabinet, all the rest of the senior bureaucrats from actually taking responsibility for aboriginal affairs. In Ottawa, over the past five to 10 years there has been a major shift from Aboriginal Affairs will look after aboriginal issues to a whole government approach . It was an approach favoured by Prime Minister Martin when he was in office... it's starting to take hold (across the country)...
So the question is on the long list of government affairs can you get into the top five? Can aboriginal affairs get into the top 5? And not just the Aboriginal Affairs minister but of all ministers, and the entire cabinet, and indeed the House of Commons and the Senate.
If First Nations people watch this election and realize they are getting platitudes and not getting specifics and the aboriginal affairs issue is showing up at number 39 up from 45, they are probably just going to stay home. It's hard to do it otherwise because they've heard the platitudes, they've seen the lack of specifics, and they've seen the lack of really sincere attention to their issues for a very long time.
The federal election will be held on October 19, 2015
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada