New Democratic Leader Thomas Mulcair would have to delay some of the big-ticket items of his platform to meet the commitment of a balanced budget but says, if elected, he would immediately begin to address the deplorable quality of education in many First Nations communities.
Mr. Mulcair, whose party has fallen to third in the polls, reached out to First Nations on Wednesday with proposals that appear even more ambitious than the sweeping promises made to them in August by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The NDP Leader took part in an election forum organized by the Assembly of First Nations at a reserve on the outskirts of Edmonton.
He said he would devote an extra $1.8-billion over four years to improve the quality of education on reserves, where high school graduation rates average just 35 per cent. That is on top of the $1.9-billion that was budgeted by the Conservative government but frozen when chiefs across Canada refused to sign on to the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, saying it robbed them of control of their own schools.
The Liberals, in contrast, are promising $900-million more over four years, plus the money that was left on the table by the Tories. Unlike Mr. Mulcair, the Liberals say they will run small deficits to meet their funding commitments.
When asked how he will explain to Canadians that some of his promised spending for programs such as child care will have to wait eight years to be fully implemented while gaps in First Nations education would be addressed quickly, Mr. Mulcair said it is time to repair the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal peoples.
"We believe sincerely that fixing this relationship is not only a good thing historically, and the right thing to do for the country, it's also the good thing to do economically," said the NDP Leader, who explained that he will increase taxes on corporations and cut tax loopholes to help pay for the priority items on his agenda.
Included on Mr. Mulcair's slate of commitments to Canada's indigenous peoples is a promise that, as prime minister, he would chair a cabinet committee that would ensure all decisions made by the government respect treaty rights, inherent rights and Canada's obligations under international accords on aboriginal rights.
With polls suggesting support for his party is dropping in most regions of the country, and that the NDP is now trailing well behind both the Conservatives and the Liberals, Mr. Mulcair is hoping for indigenous voters to give New Democrats a much needed boost.
Aboriginals in this country have not, historically, turned out to polling stations in large numbers – many of them argue that participation in federal elections is a statement against the sovereignty of their own governments.
But, after the relationship with the Conservative government grew more strained in recent years, the AFN and National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged First Nations members to cast a ballot for the party that has the best plan to address their needs. The AFN calculates that, if large numbers of indigenous people exercised their right to vote, they could make a difference in dozens of ridings across the country.
"You don't have to give anything up to participate in the political process in this country, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada this year can help determine the results in as many as 50 ridings. And that's another way of saying they can decide the results of this election," Mr. Mulcair said. "That's why it's so important to get this right."
Among other things, the NDP would devote an extra $375-million over four years to improve critical infrastructure issues on reserves such as housing, schools, and water and sanitation facilities. Drinking water poses a health risk in 73 per cent of First Nations communities.
Like the Liberals, the New Democrats say they will eliminate the 2-per-cent funding cap on transfers to indigenous communities that has been in place since 1996 and is, in many ways, responsible for the gap in quality that exists between schools on reserves and those in the rest of Canada. Like the Liberals, the NDP would hold an inquiry into the disproportionate number of indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing – an inquiry that has been denied by the Conservatives.
Carolyn Bennett, the aboriginal affairs critic for the Liberals, was also at the AFN conference. Ms. Bennett said closing the gap with indigenous people should not be a partisan issue and her party is clear in its commitment to aboriginal issues.
But, in terms of what is being offered by the New Democrats on education, Ms. Bennett said, "We have some concerns as to how the NDP will pay for this in its Swiss cheese budget where they are obsessed by balancing the budget, where we think we are going to have to go into deficit in order to do things …"
Mr. Mulcair's plane touched down late in the afternoon in Kenora, Ont., where his candidate, former Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton, is in a tight race with former Liberal cabinet minister Bob Nault and Greg Rickford, the Conservative Minister of Natural Resources. Mr. Mulcair said in a speech to reporters that was delivered on the tarmac of the Kenora airport that Mr. Hampton will fight for families in Northern Ontario.
While he was at the conference, Mr. Mulcair took part in an open forum in which a number of First Nations people took the microphone to tell him about their experiences. One of them was a Cree elder named John Shirt, who said history has taught his people not to trust the white man.
"Our people have rights. We owned this land before you came," Mr. Shirt said. "The only way you can convince me to vote for you is that you talk about that relationship that you have with our people." He welcomed Mr. Mulcair to visit his community and learn about the Cree ways before the election.
For his part, Mr. Bellegarde attempted to remain non-partisan, saying he will work with whichever government comes to power on Oct. 19. But he pointed to promises in the NDP plan that meet his approval.
"When we start hearing comments about investments in education and training, that's positive. When we start hearing comments about dealing with housing and access to potable water, that's positive, but we've got to hold people to their words," Mr. Bellegarde said.