Hey! It’s Samantha and Jack, the editors of Well-Versed. We’re happy that you’re joining us. We’ll be with you right up until the federal election. This week, we’re getting you well-versed on Indigenous issues.
Of course, the concept of an “Indigenous issue” in and of itself is isolating – and we don’t mean to segment these topics from the others we’ve been covering during the run of this newsletter. But we felt that this merited its own edition in order to provide both necessary detail and an overarching view of policy required to make an informed decision, especially for those who have not had first-hand experience of these issues.
Indigenous issues are often underrepresented in Canadian political discourse. What do you think the conversation is missing? What would you like to see the country’s next Prime Minister pay attention to? Write a comment or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, age and city if you’re comfortable, and you could be featured in Thursday’s edition of Well-Versed.
RECONCILIATION, A WORK VERY MUCH IN PROGRESS
What is reconciliation? Though it is commonly defined as an ongoing process of healing and restoring respectful relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, that very question, and the meaning behind it, has proved contentious. Why reconciliation is needed is complex – and deeply underscored by violence, forcible separation and a myriad of other historical injustices. Reconciliation, in turn, will never be simple or easy.
“The cumulative impact of residential schools is a legacy of unresolved trauma passed from generation to generation and has had a profound effect on the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians,” reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) website.
The 94 calls to action of the TRC, which came out in 2015, are essential reading. So is the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a massive report that came out this June and offered recommendations for moving forward from the violence perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. One crucial takeaway is that it named this violence a genocide – a definition that proved contentious for many, including Justin Trudeau. However, some heralded the definition for its frankness.
The Globe’s Kathryn Blaze Baum reported from Northern Ontario to tell the story of disenchantment and defiance for many Indigenous people this election. She writes, “In 2015, Indigenous voters helped propel Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to power. Now, some feel his promises of a nation-to-nation relationship haven’t been fulfilled – and they’re going to say so at the ballot box.”
She interviewed three dozen Indigenous people across the country. Read what they had to say here.
INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY (AND, YES, PIPELINES)
Before colonization by Europeans, the land that now comprises Canada was occupied by Indigenous communities from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Great Plains to the northern Arctic. Over the course of colonization and expansion of the Canadian state, land was ceded by treaty, surrendered, or captured in colonial wars.
However, much of the land on which British Columbia, Yukon, Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Southwestern Alberta now stand was never ceded. In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld a decision confirming that the B.C. Tsilhqot’in Nation had title to about 2,000 square kilometres of land that was never defined by treaty, setting a precedent for other First Nations to begin contemporary treaty negotiations.
Canada obligated itself to recognizing and respecting Indigenous sovereignty through its 2015 full endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which all member states have signed on to. UNDRIP involves the free, prior and informed consent – which implies a veto – on the state use of traditional Indigenous lands. (However, many say that Canada has not put any substantial effort into ratifying UNDRIP’s principles.)
Pipeline issues, particularly out West, are embedded in discussions of free, prior and informed consent for development on Indigenous lands. Earlier this year, the pipeline issue rose to the fore when the Wet’suwet’en First Nation blocked construction crews from accessing building sites for the Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C. The elected band councils approved of the pipeline but the protests were backed by the hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en’s five clans. The hereditary chiefs and their supporters were opposed to the pipeline, saying it could damage the watershed and wildlife.
Indigeneity is intrinsically linked to the environment, and vice versa. Just ask Autumn Peltier, a 15-year-old activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Northern Ontario: “I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, we can’t eat money, or drink oil,” she said in a speech to the UN Global Landscapes Forum late last month.
Canada’s climate future is tied to our relationship with the oil patch, and pipelines push the limits of this country’s commitments to UNDRIP and reconciliation. Complicating the matter is disagreements between Indigenous communities; some oppose pipelines and others want in on the cash cow.
HEALTH AND WELLNESS
One of the issues at the forefront of Indigenous health and wellness and the all-too-frequent inequities in care is the lack of clean, safe drinking water in many communities.
Long-term boil-water advisories – notices meaning that the water in a certain place is only safe to consume if boiled, issued either because of contamination or operational concerns – are currently in effect in 56 First Nations across Canada.
In early September, the people of Neskantaga First Nation (home of the longest boil-water advisory in Canada, at a quarter of a century) were evacuated when two pumps failed, cutting off their access to any safe water and putting the community in a state of emergency. Geoffrey York wrote a long-form piece looking into what this crisis has meant for Neskantaga – it’s worth the read.
The federal government has for years taken baby steps toward solving these issues. According to an analysis by Matthew McClearn that was published in January, “The federal Liberal government is on track with its pledge to end long-term boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves, but the overall reliability of the underlying water systems is little improved since the party came to power.” The Globe has been reporting on this two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation for years.
And several First Nations suing the federal government say that ending advisories isn’t enough, and that reserves deserve water service equitable to that of Canadians living off-reserve.
“Water governance in Indigenous communities has suffered from a lack of clear, regulatory guidance inclusive of Indigenous perspectives and beliefs,” write Kaycie Lane and Graham Gagnon.
Mental health is also a major issue: the suicide rate among Indigenous youth is five to seven times higher than among non-Indigenous youth, according to Health Canada. There are major gaps in care on reserves, and so Indigenous young people often have to travel far from home for treatment.
Canada generally follows Jordan’s Principle, a legal rule that Indigenous families say has improved their ability to access health care for their children. Named after Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old child from Norway House Cree Nation who died while waiting for the resolution of a dispute over who would pay for his health care, Jordan’s Principle requires that kids get access to services without delays caused by jurisdictional issues.
But Kevin Hart, Manitoba regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said Indigenous children are still falling through jurisdictional cracks, and that equitable care should involve the principle being expanded to family services, education and even the justice system.
LANGUAGE PRESERVATION AND REVITALIZATION
In early February, the federal government introduced legislation aimed at preserving Indigenous languages, which it said had been eroded by colonialist laws geared toward eradicating them. That bill, C-91, was meant to serve as an acknowledgement that Indigenous rights necessarily include Indigenous-language rights, at a time when three-quarters of the 90 different Indigenous languages in Canada are at risk. In July, Ottawa announced that it would spend more than $4.1-million over two years to preserve Indigenous languages in Atlantic Canada.
But much of the labour behind Indigenous-language revitalization is taking place in grassroots forums. For instance, organizations such as the Yukon Native Language Centre, Qqs Projects Society and Tsuut’ina Gunaha Institute are at the forefront of language preservation, but it’s a difficult undertaking even with federal funding.
First things first: Indigenous children experience the highest rates of poverty in Canada.
In early September, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa had “wilfully” and “recklessly” failed to provide appropriate funding for child and family services, and called for compensation of up to $40,000 to First Nations children who were unnecessarily taken into care on or after Jan. 1, 2006.
Advocate Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, says there is no “greater moral issue” that must be addressed during the federal election campaign than the inequities Indigenous children face in the foster system.
But Trudeau made headlines just a few weeks ago when his government announced that it would be filing an application for a judicial review of the tribunal’s findings, which has been costed at nearly $8-billion (depending on how long it takes). The announcement fuelled condemnation from Indigenous leaders and questions of Trudeau’s commitment to thorough reconciliation.
WHAT ARE THE PARTIES PLEDGING?
- The Liberal platform affirms a commitment to building relationships with Indigenous communities, continuing with the process of reconciliation and pledges to advance the priorities of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities without going into specifics. When he was elected in 2015, Trudeau promised to end the 105 boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves; Indigenous Services Canada said the remaining long-term advisories will be terminated by March, 2021.
- Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has promised to appoint a ministerial special representative to engage in consultation with Indigenous groups as part of his plan to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. However, in the Oct. 7 leaders’ debate, Scheer stressed that consent from all Indigenous groups can’t stand in the way of completing big projects and expressed uncertainty about the application of UNDRIP in this regard. Scheer said that the government should challenge the human-rights tribunal ruling on compensating Indigenous children.
- The NDP pledge to have “reconciliation at the heart of what we do,” including prioritizing Indigenous sovereignty and autonomy, and accepted the tribunal’s conclusions on child welfare and appropriate compensation. The party’s platform outlines commitments such as fully implementing UNDRIP, developing a national plan for reconciliation, implementing all 94 of the TRC’s recommendations, tackling the widespread mould that plagues reserve housing, and increasing funding to Indigenous education. In addition, the platform pledges to fund more fire and transportation services, support Indigenous entrepreneurship and community job growth, address systemic discrimination and violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, and work as equal partners with Indigenous peoples in fighting climate change. Jagmeet Singh and his party also pledge to lift all drinking-water advisories, which the Parliamentary Budget Office priced at $1.8-billion.
- The Green Party pledges to fully implement UNDRIP and repeal the Indian Act, which it calls “racist and oppressive legislation,” in partnership with First Nations. Elizabeth May’s party promises to include Indigenous nations and peoples in its promised “council of Canadian governments” that will develop shared national goals and endorsed the agenda put forward for the 2019 election by the Assembly of First Nations. The Green platform includes honouring the tribunal hearing conclusions on child welfare, the co-operative creation of an Indigenous lands and treaties tribunal to decide on specific claims, and implementing the recommendations from both the TRC and MMIWG inquiry. It also pledges, among other things, to support the development of language– and culture-specific Indigenous education criteria, increase access to postsecondary education for Indigenous youth and educate non-Indigenous Canadians on histories and cultures, and end all drinking-water and boil advisories.
The notable gap in promises on Indigenous issues between the political parties underscores the ramifications that this election could have on Indigenous communities. As you approach the ballot box and consider the responsibility that Canada has toward Indigenous peoples, you must also consider what you define as progress and how standards such as strict free, prior and informed consent could impact other policy questions, such as pledges on pipelines and the environment.
Well-Versed is The Globe and Mail’s twice-weekly newsletter that aims to jump-start your conversations about the 2019 federal election. If you’re reading this through a browser, you can subscribe to the newsletter.
IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Almost 50 years ago, it came to light that the fish in the waterways around Grassy Narrows First Nation were poisoned by tons of mercury dumped by a paper mill. To this day, the community is still dealing with a health crisis as a result of the pollution. Mercury damage is being passed down from mothers to children: one study found that children from Grassy Narrows are four times more likely to suffer from learning disabilities or nervous-system disorders if their mothers had regularly consumed fish during their pregnancies. Few people are receiving compensation payments for this devastation.
Grassy Narrows is far from the only Indigenous community in Canada that faces serious, systemic and historic health threats, but it has taken centre stage in the discussion of Indigenous issues on the campaign trail. Trudeau has been criticized by candidates and audience members at debates for not following through with the federal government’s 2017 pledge to build a specialized medical clinic in the community. Singh pledged last week to immediately spend $19-million to build a mercury-poisoning centre in Grassy Narrows; the community’s chief, Rudy Turtle, is the NDP candidate for Kenora.
- Both the NDP and the Conservatives released their costed platforms on Friday, just ahead of the Thanksgiving long weekend. The Conservative plan includes billions in tax cuts and a promise to eliminate the deficit and balance the budget, while the NDP plans to raise $130-billion in taxes from corporations and wealthy Canadians to pay for its promises.
- The federal Conservative Party has been running Facebook ads accusing the Liberal party of planning to legalize hard drugs, which the Liberal Party has said they don’t plan to do. Six ads have appeared on the Conservatives’ Chinese-language page, but the party has made little reference to these accusations in English.
- The party leaders are focusing on high-stakes ridings this Thanksgiving weekend, as we move into the final week of campaigning.
- The CBC is taking the Conservatives to court over their election ads (which it alleges violated its copyright by including news programming clips in partisan advertising) but won’t be listing the two political journalists previously named as part of the suit.
If you’re a Globe subscriber, be sure to also sign up for our regular Politics Briefing newsletter, written every weekday by deputy politics editor Chris Hannay. He will be ramping up his election coverage of all the big headlines and campaign trail news to keep you informed.