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Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 7, 2020, to sign a protocol agreement to advance First Nations' exercise of jurisdiction over child and family services.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is pointing to polling conducted for his advocacy organization as evidence that Canadians see First Nations issues as key priorities for the country ahead of the forthcoming Speech from the Throne later this month.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Perry Bellegarde said a majority of Canadians have expressed support for issues including the need for appropriate housing, access to clean drinking water and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In the weeks leading up to the Throne Speech – designed to lay out the federal government’s agenda – there will be much lobbying by an array of political players to ensure that the issues they support are included and prioritized.

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In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would be requesting the prorogation of Parliament and said a Throne Speech would be delivered on Sept. 23 to lay out a “reset” for the government that takes into account the impacts of the pandemic.

Mr. Bellegarde said his message to Ottawa is simple: It needs to build upon the Throne Speech delivered last fall where there was an entire chapter devoted to Indigenous issues entitled “Walking the road of reconciliation.”

“A majority of Canadians are saying ’Yes, First Nations issues that we’ve been advocating for for years need to be dealt with,’” he said.

In polling conducted by Nanos Research, released publicly for the first time to The Globe, Canadians surveyed said they felt First Nations housing issues should be a high or somewhat high priority for the federal government.

Canadians most often said the country is not doing enough to support First Nations children. The poll found that more than one in two (52 per cent) think that way, while 19 per cent think the government is doing the right amount and 10 per cent say it’s doing too much. Nineteen per cent are unsure.

A majority of Canadians said access to clean and potable drinking water in First Nations communities is less than adequate.

A majority also agreed or somewhat agreed that the federal government should pass federal legislation to implement UNDRIP. The UN says the declaration establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.

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Nanos, which was retained by the AFN for the research, conducted a hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,021 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between April 6 to 9. The margin of error for this type of survey is considered plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out 20.

In an interview, Nik Nanos, the founder and chief data scientist of Nanos Research, said a major takeaway is that Canadians recognize that there has been progress on issues in recent years but additional work is required.

The study found that 35 per cent believed Canada is doing a better job at addressing Indigenous issues compared with 2015, while 37 per cent believed it was doing about the same.

“What we see is basically a picture where Canadians understand that there is a problem; we need to do more,” Mr. Nanos said.

The top priorities highlighted in the poll relate to living conditions of Indigenous people, such as housing and clean water, he added, noting that it may be difficult to understand the conditions in many communities when Canada is a leading economy in the world with a high standard of living.

On the federal government’s website, it notes that as of mid-February, 61 long-term drinking-water advisories remained while 88 such advisories have been lifted since November, 2015.

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On UNDRIP, Mr. Bellegarde said he specifically wants to see strong wording in the Throne Speech on the need for legislation to not only be introduced, but passed.

Merely introducing a bill would not be enough, he said.

In the past Throne Speech, the government promised to “take action to co-develop and introduce legislation to implement [UNDRIP] in the first year of the new mandate.”

The Liberal government has yet to bring forward that legislation.

Mr. Bellegarde said he understands that COVID-19 has set everything back. But he said his job as National Chief is to ensure that policies and programs are not pushed to the side.

He said the world and the country have changed because of COVID-19 but that the priorities for First Nations are no less important.

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The findings, Mr. Bellegarde said, should resonate not only with the existing government but all political leaders and their parties looking to put together their policy platforms.

Canadians see that it is simply not acceptable in 2020 that an enormous socioeconomic gap exists between First Nations people and the rest of Canadian society, he added.

“They’re saying ’Let’s get this done. Let’s fix this so our children and our grandchildren don’t have to keep talking about it.’”

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