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Politics Assembly of First Nations sets sights on influencing election campaign policy

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde releases 'Honouring Promises: 2019 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada' during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Sept. 9, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Assembly of First Nations is urging all parties to place a greater emphasis on issues that matter to First Nations, including climate change, housing and justice reforms in the upcoming election campaign.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s advocacy organization, which says it represents more than 900,000 people in 634 communities, released a new policy document titled “Honouring Promises” on Monday while he stressed that First Nations votes should not be taken for granted.

In the 2015 federal election campaign, Mr. Bellegarde said the First Nations vote was responsible for flipping the outcome in more than 20 ridings.

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“We have to use all the tools in our toolbox or use all of the arrows in our quiver to bring about policy and legislative change, and voting is one of them,” Mr. Bellegarde said Monday.

Tackling climate change is the “No. 1 issue" that the parties need to confront in this campaign, Mr. Bellegarde said, pointing to examples of environmental destruction including the impact of Hurricane Dorian on Eastern Canada.

The federal government should work with First Nations as full partners to act on climate change as a national priority, the AFN policy document said.

It also calls for any federal government to work with First Nations to establish restorative justice systems, noting Indigenous adults represented 29 per cent of adult admissions into federal custody in 2017-18, but 4 per cent of the population.

The document also calls housing a “serious obstacle" to the well-being of First Nations and says federal financing needs to be made available to communities to support their needs within the first two years of the government.

Addressing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples should be a priority for all of the political parties and candidates in this election, said Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, who resigned from the Trudeau cabinet after she faced pressure to defer the prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a former AFN regional chief in B.C. and an independent candidate in the Oct. 21 election for the riding of Vancouver Granville, said there is “no question” progress has been made on Indigenous issues under this government but she urged further action.

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“From my perspective, there has to be more done in terms of rights recognition, in terms of creating the space and the foundation for Indigenous communities to rebuild their nations and their governments," she said.

The Liberal government has made "historic progress” on a range of issues including housing, education and language, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said in an interview.

“The Prime Minister’s been very clear and is still is clear that the relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Métis is the most important relationship to our country and in fact all Canadians,” she said, citing budgetary investments spanning four years of the government’s mandate as proof of its commitment.

“We certainly recognize there’s much more to do.”

The federal Conservatives said Monday the party is committed to bringing forward policies that make measurable improvements in the lives of Indigenous peoples.

“We will study these recommendations closely and look forward to releasing our plan to make life more affordable for Indigenous communities,” spokesman Simon Jefferies said.

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The NDP’s Charlie Angus, a critic on the Indigenous file, said the Liberals have not been sincere on key promises, such as addressing a request for a special treatment facility in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

First Nations people in Northern Ontario simply “don’t believe this Prime Minister," Mr. Angus said. “The difference this time is First Nations communities and the voters know,” he said.

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle, now a candidate for the NDP, said in an interview that he had been looking forward to a “big change” with the Liberal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He said he ultimately felt disappointed, prompting him to run for office.

“We invited [Mr. Trudeau] to come to Grassy,” he said, adding that other communities are also experiencing frustration. "When you tell someone you care about them, you don’t ignore them.”

Ms. Bennett said, however, she is heartened by Indigenous leaders who have stepped forward to “carry on the work" that the Liberals began.

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The Green Party released a statement on Monday saying it fully backs the priorities laid out in the AFN’s document, particularly around fighting climate change.

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