Pamela Palmater: Leaders stumble on Indigenous reconciliation at debates
Published Friday, September 10, 2021 3:18PM EDT Last Updated Friday, September 10, 2021 3:18PM EDT
TORONTO -- The federal party leaders have now completed the two official debates of this election campaign, one in French and one in English. Both were held at the Canadian Museum of History, a fitting venue, given its Indigenous history exhibits and the attempts by some of the leaders to historicize Indigenous issues during the debates.
Here’s the problem with historicizing Canada’s genocide of Indigenous peoples - it distances those in power from any sense of responsibility for addressing past wrongs, but it also keeps them from acting with urgency to end the multiple, overlapping crises facing us in the here and now. If the debates showed us anything, it’s that none of them grasp the monumental task ahead of us.
In June 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide – a significant finding given Canada’s international reputation as a human rights champion.
Yet, none of the leaders at either debate talked about a comprehensive plan to end genocide. Instead, they seemed to stumble around reconciliation talking points and headline issues like water on reserve and getting rid of the Indian Act. When asked a direct question about what they plan to do about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, they gave some surprising answers.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said it should be Indigenous leaders in the debate answering that question and generally to make space for Indigenous leaders – which left many wondering if she was putting the burden on Indigenous Peoples. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pointed to the fact that they did initiate a national inquiry and that they have worked with Indigenous women’s groups to co-develop a national action plan that is fully funded.
This sounded good, except they do not have an action plan, they have a “Federal Pathway” document that outlines the programs and services already offered to Indigenous Peoples, but no concrete plan to end genocide. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had a perfect opportunity to outline his own plan, but instead dedicated his time to attacking Trudeau on compensation for First Nations children in foster care.
Although the moderator attempted to get the debate back to violence against Indigenous women and girls, Singh continued to challenge Trudeau, Paul called for diversity in politics, and Trudeau shifted to unmarked graves. It was literally only in the last five seconds that Singh said we should implement the inquiry’s Calls for Justice.
While the debate then shifted to other Indigenous issues like systemic racism in Quebec and First Nations children in foster care, none of the leaders connected these human rights crises back to genocide against Indigenous Peoples. In fact, some of the leaders pushed back. Bloc Québecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, seemed far more concerned about Québec’s reputation than the suffering of Indigenous Peoples due to systemic racism in policing and health care. He even stated that he would only discuss the issue on a “quiet stage” and not at the debate.
Similarly, when asked a question about the massive cost of the federal bureaucracy that controls the lives of First Nations, Trudeau responded by saying that one of the enemies of progressive politics is cynicism and that we should not discount the hard work of millions. His denial that the federal government is litigating First Nations children in court was a shock given the fact the government in involved in ongoing litigation. Perhaps the most concerning was Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s answers to the questions on Indigenous issues that betray the plans outlined in his platform.
O’Toole admitted that the Conservatives must restore trust with Indigenous Peoples, but failed to mention he plans to criminalize Indigenous protests. Similarly, his version of Indigenous self-determination means corporate board training and partnerships with industry, and not any nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous governments. He was also quick to attack Trudeau on not addressing all the water advisories yet was not forthcoming that his plan would only deal with high-risk systems and not most water systems (or lack thereof) on reserves.
Where he was candid was in his defence of why he voted against Bill C-15, which implements the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He simply doesn’t agree that one of the core human rights of Indigenous Peoples is their right to free, prior and informed consent on any development on their lands.
Each of the leaders had multiple opportunities to share a meaningful plan on how to end genocide and didn’t. While Liberal and NDP platforms have important commitments for Indigenous Peoples moving forward, we heard very little about those plans at either of the debates.
So long as politicians treat Indigenous reconciliation as a grab bag of assorted headlines around which they must craft careful speaking points and clever comebacks, we won’t be able to move forward with substantive reconciliation in a meaningful way.
That leaves Indigenous Peoples with few options but to vote for the least-worst party and uncertainty about reconciliation moving forward.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer specializing in Indigenous and human rights law. She is the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University.