The revelation of several hundred unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School vaulted a dark chapter in Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples to the fore in the spring, in a visceral way that previous work to chronicle the past had not.
It dominated the news, and the national consciousness. Justin Trudeau ordered the flags on all federal buildings lowered. Parliament rushed through a bill to make Sept. 30 a federal holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Multiple levels of government pledged money to fully remember an unknown number of nameless children.
More than three months later, federal flags remain at half-mast, indefinitely. But beyond that symbolic gesture, which dismays many Canadians while doing nothing to improve the actual situation of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous issues spent the summer slowly receding from the top of the political agenda.
In this election campaign, which from its launch one month ago has never had a purpose beyond hoped-for electoral gains, there are a mash of issues but no one question is at the front.
Yet there is a greater presence of Indigenous voices, and more talk of Indigenous issues. In 2019, there were 62 Indigenous candidates on the campaign trail. This time there are at least 77 (of which 25 are running for the Liberals and eight for the Conservatives). In last week’s English-language leaders’ debate, Indigenous issues received more airtime than in 2019, and discussion didn’t stray as far off topic. As for the platforms of the two leading parties, they have more to say than ever on Indigenous issues.
A platform can’t be judged by its volume of words but, for what it’s worth, the Liberals include the word Indigenous 182 times, up from 117 mentions in 2019. The Conservatives have 126 mentions, triple the number in their 2019 platform. But the tonnage of talk may encapsulate some of the problem, and the ill feelings among Indigenous communities.
Take an issue such as clean drinking water. It’s an area where one can see the long-standing gaps between talk and action. Way back in 1977, Canada set the goal of safe water for all First Nations communities. In the 2015 campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised he’d lift all long-term advisories within five years. At the time, there were 105.
Late last year, the Liberal government conceded it would not hit the target. Ottawa has rectified 109 long-term advisories, but more problems emerged, and 51 remain. The latest landed during the campaign on the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, where a new water line led to myriad problems. A lasting solution is on the drawing board.
For the Conservatives, Indigenous issues have grown into a relatively prominent part of their platform, compared with 2019. Their focus, however, is more on resource development, and enabling Indigenous communities to partner in development so as to get a piece of the wealth generated. The Tories promise $5-billion to fund a Canadian Indigenous Enterprise Corp., to develop oil and other resources, similar to an initiative in Alberta. The Conservatives have also made mental health a big part of their platform, and as part of that, they are promising $200-million a year for Indigenous mental health and drug treatment.
The Liberals have not achieved all of their past promises but there have been some partial results, such as on water. This year’s platform contains a long list of pledges. Among them, similar to the Conservatives, is $280-million a year in new money for mental health and wellness. Numerous other ideas involve continuing to work on previous ideas.
There are large issues of, and debates over, whether major legal changes are necessary for Canada and Indigenous peoples to move forward into a better future. There are questions about the future of the Indian Act, questions about slow-moving land claims settlements, and questions about the need for constitutional or quasi-constitutional change in the relationship between Ottawa and some Indigenous communities.
Those are big ones. But we would suggest that the biggest long-term goal for the federal government, plainly stated, should be that all Indigenous people, whether they live on a reserve or in a city, attain and enjoy the same quality of life –education, economic, social and in terms of health and safety – as all other Canadians.
And on that score, despite progress in recent years, Canada remains painfully far from the finish line.
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