First Nations hope for better relationship with feds under Trudeau
Assembly of First Nations national Chief Perry Bellegarde gives the keynote speech at the AFN's annual conference in Montreal on Tuesday, July 7, 2015. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Graham Slaughter, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, October 20, 2015 1:58AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, October 20, 2015 2:04AM EDT
With Stephen Harper stepping down from his party’s helm in the wake of a Liberal victory, First Nations leaders seem to have accomplished their goal of helping to defeat the Conservatives.
The Tories also lost Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s riding of Madawaska-Restigouche in New Brunswick.
According to Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, that's a telling loss.
“I think that’s a strong message in terms of not getting the job done,” Bellegarde told CTV News as the results came in.
In the days after the Liberal sweep, Bellegarde says that First Nations people have a clear mission: “To build a relationship first with the new prime minster.”
First Nations leaders and advocates locked horns with the Conservatives over a wide array of indigenous issues, from treaty rights and Aboriginal education to the ability to get clean water on reserves.
The call to defeat the Conservatives first came in July as chiefs highlighted 51 ridings that they believed could be swayed away from the Tories with a strong turnout of Native voters.
Of those 51 ridings --14 of which were Conservative -- at least five were taken away from the Tories, with several neck-and-neck races still waiting to report a winner late Monday:
It’s unclear how much of Monday’s result was directly influenced by First Nations voters; Elections Canada is expected to release more detailed polling numbers in the following days.
But First Nations leaders say they expect to see a large increase from the 2011 election, when just 45 per cent of people living on reserves cast votes.
On Monday, buses in several reserves across Canada helped usher voters to polling stations. Additionally, chiefs had committed at an earlier meeting to ensure that no young person was without the proper voter’s ID.
The momentum even got a celebrity endorsement: Ashley Callingbull, the First Nations Mrs. Universe winner from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, who posted an Instagram photo of herself outside a polling station Monday.
“Rocked the indigenous vote today!” she said in the post.
It seemed to work. At least four reserves in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta had such high voter turnouts that they briefly ran out of ballots. Some polling stations considered making photocopies, but Elections Canada quickly responded with emergency ballots.
Galvanizing Native voters to hit the polls was described as “a matter of national importance” by Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in July.
“There should be no greater effort put forward by us in the coming weeks and into the coming months," Nepinak said.
Tensions between First Nations communities and the Conservative government arose in Harper’s early days in office, when he rejected the $5-million Kelowa Accord, a step taken by the previous Liberal government to improve employment, education and living conditions on reserves.
Since then, Ottawa’s relationship with First Nations seemed “unnecessarily adversarial,” Bellegarde said, adding that the Harper government “went out of its way” to fight treaty rights and aboriginal rights.
First Nations advocates have raised a series of concerns over the election, including unsafe drinking water on reserves, underfunded education, poor housing, joblessness, youth suicide and the sad legacy of abuse at residential schools.
Harper hit a particularly sour note with First Nations advocates by refusing to hold a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
"Our government position on this has been very clear. We have moved forward with a whole series of criminal justice reforms to deal with the problems of violence against people generally, violence against women in particular," Harper said at a stop in Whitby, Ont., on Oct. 6.
"Most of these murders, sad as they are, are in fact solved."
Those comments led to quick response from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who said that Harper was "shamefully ignorant of the facts."
According to the RCMP, there have been 164 unsolved cases of missing Aboriginal women since 1980 and 1,017 more women have been victims of homicide.
In his winning speech, Trudeau said that Canadians chose to elect a government that “respects rights and honours treaties.”
The Liberals campaigned hard for the First Nations vote, committing to a $2.7-billion investment in youth education and $500 million for school infrastructure.