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Aboriginal Canada and reconciliation: Four things to know before you vote

ELECTION PRIMER

ABORIGINAL CANADA AND RECONCILIATION: FOUR THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VOTE

First Nations protesters dance on Parliament Hill on Jan. 28, 2013.

First Nations protesters dance on Parliament Hill on Jan. 28, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Since the Idle No More protests began three years ago, aboriginal issues have been thrust onto the national stage as never before. What have the federal parties promised for native communities? Here's a primer

There are at least 1,181 RCMP-documented cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women dating back to the 1980s.

An RCMP report released last year confirmed what aboriginal people had suspected, and pressed authorities to act on, for years: Aboriginal women are targets of disproportionate and deadly violence in Canada. The report said aboriginal women make up 16 per cent of all female homicide victims, and 11 per cent of missing women, even though aboriginal people are only 4.3 per cent of Canada's population.

High-profile killings such as the Robert Pickton serial murders in B.C. and the 2014 killing of Winnipeg teenager Tina Fontaine have prompted calls for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered women, and stronger policies to prevent more deaths. The June report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools also recommended an inquiry.

‘They failed Tina’: Thelma Favel remembers her niece

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  • Conservatives: Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has ruled out a public inquiry, saying that the killings are not a “sociological phenomenon” and should be left to the police. “Most of these murders, sad as they are, are in fact solved,” he said at a campaign stop in Ontario on Oct. 6. Mr. Harper has promised an action plan for violent crimes against aboriginal women and girls, and a $100-million investment over 10 years to combat family violence and child abuse.
  • NDP: New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair says an NDP government would launch an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women within his first 100 days in office. In August, Mr. Mulcair also promised a national action plan to combat violence against women.
  • Liberals: Leader Justin Trudeau says a Liberal government would launch an inquiry immediately.

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Up to 6,000 children died in Canada's residential school system – but no one knows for sure how many died.

After six years of study and testimony from 7,000 survivors of residential schools, there was still much that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission couldn't quantify exactly – how many died of disease, malnutrition and neglect in the schools, and how to measure the cultural cost of a policy designed to assimilate native youth for generations. But it did have solutions in mind: 94 recommendations to overhaul everything from education, child welfare and treaty rights, in order to create "nation to nation" relationships between indigenous people and Ottawa.

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Elder hugs Harper and Trudeau at TRC closing ceremony

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  • Liberals: The party says a Liberal government would enact all the commission’s recommendations, starting with implementing the UN’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • NDP: Mr. Mulcair has said the NDP would consult with aboriginal people to see which of the report’s recommendations need the most attention first. Mr. Mulcair has also promised an NDP government would create a cabinet-level committee, which he would lead, to make sure government decisions reflect treaty rights and Canada’s international obligations, including those defined by UNDRIP.
  • Conservatives: Since the report’s release, Mr. Harper has been mostly quiet on which recommendations he would enact, saying the government would wait for the TRC’s full report. The Conservative platform promises “immediate action” on suicide prevention, support for native languages and other measures that they say address “key themes” set out in the TRC’s report.

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Aboriginal women have been making a comeback in the work force.

Aboriginal people face many challenges in finding work and education. On-reserve high school dropout rates are about four times the national average; the gap in education levels between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians has widened over the past decade; and since Ottawa doesn't even measure on-reserve unemployment statistics, much is still unknown about how to help First Nations create more and better jobs. But off-reserve, it's not all bad news. A Toronto-Dominion Bank paper earlier this year found that, since the recession, aboriginal women have made "the largest bounce back" in employment compared with non-aboriginals and aboriginal men, with 3.2-per-cent growth in wages between 2007 and 2014. Aboriginal people, a young and fast-growing segment of Canada's population, could be vital to the future labour force of a country where seniors now outnumber children.

Education reform and improved federal funding for native-run schools were key planks of the TRC report, and the major parties have offered various solutions to close the education and employment gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

Inside an Ontario high school for indigenous students

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  • Conservatives: Last year, the Harper government pinned its hopes for native education reform on the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which would have committed an extra $1.9-billion to First Nations education over seven years. The act – designed with and endorsed by Shawn Atleo, then chief of the Assembly of First Nations – was put on hold last May after many native leaders said it gave Ottawa too much control of First Nations schools, criticisms that led Mr. Atleo to resign. In their election platform, the Conservatives say that, if re-elected, they would remain “committed to working with willing First Nations partners and provinces” on other education initiatives.
  • NDP: On Oct. 7, Mr. Mulcair pledged $1.8-billion over four years to improve on-reserve education, and a funding escalator that would add up to an extra $4.8-billion over eight years. An NDP government would also boost support for the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy.
  • Liberals: The Liberal platform promises a “nation-to-nation process” to improve First Nations’ education on their own terms, investing an additional $900-million over four years (in addition to the amount allotted by the Conservatives) for on-reserve schools. A Liberal government would also spend $50-million to expand the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy.

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TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline crosses the traditional territory of 180 different aboriginal communities.

With oil prices plummeting and Alberta's economy in a tailspin, all the major party leaders have tried to strike their own balances between more oil-sands development and environmental protection. But extracting oil from the ground and transporting it to market via pipelines is impossible without consulting First Nations whose lands are affected – and aboriginal peoples' patience with Ottawa over land use and the environment has been badly strained over the past few years.

In 2012, federal omnibus bills that critics said were harmful to environmental oversight were what prompted activists to start the Idle No More protest movement. Those protests helped fuel acrimonious debates over pipeline proposals such as Energy East and Enbridge's Northern Gateway. Now, the opposition leaders are eager to reassure First Nations leaders that their energy and environmental policies would honour Ottawa's treaty obligations.

Perry Bellegarde: Resource revenue sharing and the disparity between First Nations and Canadians

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  • Liberals: Mr. Trudeau says a Liberal government would overhaul the environmental assessment process and make sure First Nations are consulted on projects affecting them. The Liberals have also pledged to review the Harper government’s elimination of safeguards in the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
  • NDP: The New Democrats’ platform also vows to strengthen environmental assessments, and ensure indigenous people are consulted in them. The NDP has also promised to reverse changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act and work toward resource development revenue-sharing deals that would benefit aboriginal communities.
  • Conservatives: Mr. Harper has supported more oil-sands development and pipelines to transport Alberta’s oil, saying the energy sector “needs a government that is on its side.”

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With reports from Globe staff and The Canadian Press


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