If Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants the support of more Indigenous voters in the federal election, he should disavow the approach of his predecessor Stephen Harper, says Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
During an event in Ottawa Monday to launch a platform of First Nations election priorities, Bellegarde said progress has been made on key issues important to Indigenous and First Nations people in Canada, including getting greater access to the prime minister and cabinet ministers under the Trudeau government.
Bellegarde said no prime minister before Justin Trudeau went to Assembly of First Nations national gatherings. Trudeau has attended three.
That’s why, when asked if Scheer should publicly declare he would take a different approach to First Nations issues from that of the former Conservative prime minister, Bellegarde said yes.
“If he wants to gain a lot of support from First Nations people that would be a really good step, if he was to do that, and be more open and accessible,” Bellegarde said.
Harper became a polarizing figure for many Indigenous and First Nations communities during his time in office, despite being the prime minister to issue a formal apology in the House of Commons to survivors of abusive residential schools. His refusal to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was highly controversial and the concerns of many Indigenous leaders and communities over a number of his government’s policies and legislation were sparks for the Idle No More movement.
Canada has been treating Indigenous issues as higher priorities since then, Bellegarde said. He pointed to $21.4 billion spent on First Nations needs over the last seven fiscal years, four of those under the Liberals.
But more work needs to be done, he said.
“Has the gap closed yet? The answer is no. Has there been movement? The answer is yes, but we have to maintain momentum.”
Bellegarde is not endorsing any political party for the Oct. 21 vote, but the AFN is hoping to motivate Indigenous Canadians to exercise their right to vote and, when they do, to examine the efforts made by all parties on making First Nations issues a priority.
A total of 61.5 per cent of eligible First Nations voters cast ballots in 2015 — a number Bellegarde hopes will grow to ensure Indigenous issues are top-of-mind for political parties as they make their pitches to voters.
“If you want to be a member of Parliament, you’d better listen to First Nations issues and concerns and priorities because we have an impact. We’re voting now.”
The AFN election document, entitled “Honouring Promises,” lists short- and long-term goals to improve the lives of Indigenous people in Canada.
The top priority is mitigating the effects of climate change.
The AFN wants First Nations to become full partners in carrying out Canada’s climate plan, including in any decisions on how to spend money raised from carbon pricing, and would like direct participation in federal environmental policy-making.
The group is also looking for recognition that First Nations treaty rights would allow them to develop and implement environmental regulations and impact-assessment regimes.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press