ELECTION ISSUE: Working with First Nations to improve lives

Cowichan-Malahat-Langford: Candidates talk party platforms, offer personal experiences

Don Descoteau and Sarah Simpson

Black Press

NDP candidate Alistair MacGregor is not shy about saying any work his party does with regard to First Nations issues has roots in current NDP MP Jean Crowder’s office.

Crowder is the NDP’s aboriginal affairs critic.

“It was through a lot of her work over the last few years that we really developed our policy platform on this,” he said. “She travelled from coast to coast to coast and really listened to a lot of people. The hard work she did is really reflected in this policy.”

MacGregor said the NDP want to establish a new era of relations with First Nations.

“That comes with starting at the top where we’ve used the term ‘Nation to Nation’ to describe our approach,” he said, explaining that should Tom Mulcair be elected as Canada’s next leader, the party would form a cabinet committee with him as the chair.

“That upper level committee is going to examine all the interactions that the federal government has with First Nations and make sure we are respecting aboriginal rights and titles so that we’re forging a new way forward right from the top,” MacGregor said.

He also noted that within 100 days of being in office, the NDP would call a national enquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

The NDP would also implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

The drying up of the Cowichan River in the summer is an important issue to solve, but in concert with other pressing issues in Cowichan and beyond, he explained.

“The river’s got such cultural significance for Cowichan Tribes. That’s part of a larger plan where we want to improve essential infrastructure on reserves across Canada – housing, roads, drinking water facilities – those all need a lot of work. We have so many First Nations people that are living in conditions worse than a third-world country right now and I think it’s pretty shameful.”

Improvements to aboriginal education are also a priority, as is not leaving the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work to gather dust on a shelf.

“We do want to implement those findings, in consultation, just to make sure we’re doing it appropriately,” he said.

Liberal candidate Luke Krayenhoff said the TRC was “very powerful” and a good way to help deal with the emotional wounds of the past.

At the same time, he is very conscious of the fact that the Commission made a number of recommendations for current and future governments to consider, as a way of moving forward and determining how not to repeat past wrongs.

“I completely support that process and I’m really glad it took place,” he said.

It is crucial, he added, that the next federal government start to implement those recommendations as a show of good faith in the process and the Canadians it represented.

One of the Liberal Party’s commitments to First Nations, he said, is to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, with special emphasis on women and children’s rights. The policy resolution that includes this commitment also vows to implement provisions in the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which sought to improve education, employment and living conditions for Canada’s aboriginal people; and recommendations from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Noting that the Douglas Treaties are in place on the South Island and that other treaties remain outstanding, Krayenhoff pointed to agreements with the Nisga’a and the Tsawwassen nations as good models with which to move forward on other unsettled land claims.

“It has been shown around the world that if you want to bring economic prosperity to an area, you’ve got to have certainty around land title,” he said, adding that doing so allows First Nations to create businesses, improve housing and education and further develop community.

As for the proposed Steelhead LNG project on Malahat Nation lands in Mill Bay, Krayenhoff said if it meets the three-pronged criteria, which is: First Nations approval, passing the environmental review process and getting community licence or social buy-in from the greater community, then there’s no reason the Malahat people should be prevented from pursuing that form of economic development.

Krayenhoff’s LNG view is a stark contrast to that of Green Party candidate Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, who has been vocal in her opposition.

Hunt-Jinnouchi, who has been both a successful businessperson and elected chief of the Quatsino First Nation, admits there are many challenges around economic opportunities for aboriginal peoples in Canada.

“But I’d say a common denominator, whether we’re talking about B.C. or Manitoba, is aboriginal rights and title,” she said.

An example of the Green Party’s commitment to First Nations, she said, is that both the federal and provincial branches of the party sent letters to the provincial and federal governments and the RCMP, supporting the Unist’ot’en people – who oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline – in their right to require consent for the use of their lands.

“It was telling that no other party has supported them, and this is a longtime public standoff,” she said. “What I find is we make our commitments explicit and we actually walk the talk. That’s what makes me very proud to be standing with the Green Party.”

As for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 recommendations, she said, “As much as that report brings that dark history out of the shadows, it also brings us an impetus to come out of the shadows like never before.”

Aboriginal people in Canada have long been living under colonial and paternalistic policies of governments, she said, but she was struck by the public reaction to the TRC and its findings.

“The response of Canadians across the country – and people seem ready to say ‘let’s deal with this’ – I haven’t seen that in my generation,” she said. “I see that as such an opportunity, and I think the Green Party is the right party to move that forward. We make very straightforward statements and commitments, not motherhood statements.”

Conservative candidate Martin Barker said the current government has taken a number of steps to help First Nations people and improve their lives already.

“We have included aboriginal people within the same protections under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It was also Prime Minister Stephen Harper who made a public apology for Canada’s residential school system, the only prime minister to have done so,” Barker said. “This included a four-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a one-year extension. There was also a $2.2 billion reparation fund.”

He said the Conservatives have focused on improving opportunities for self-governance, by creating the First Nation Funding Authority. It provides low-cost borrowing for infrastructure needs, which generates economic opportunities locally, he said. “It was through this program that the Malahat band was able to use to purchase the Bamberton property.”

As well, he said the Conservative government has been consulting with First Nations to responsibly develop resources. “The energy and mining sector are by far the largest employers of aboriginal people across Canada, providing economic development opportunities for a number of communities,” Barker added.

He further touts that since 2006, six modern treaties have been signed.

Health is an important component of supporting those living on First Nations reserves, Barker said.

“That is why our government invested over $2.5 billion on First Nations health, and $330 million invested in accessible clean water on reserves,” he said. “Overall the latest budget showed an increase in First Nation investment of 33 per cent. This includes annual funding to build 400 homes and renovate 1,000 homes on reserve.”

And there’s more where that came from.

“The Conservative Party is taking concrete action to help improve the lives of aboriginal people across Canada, and if re-elected we will continue this record,” he said.

Candidate Alastair Haythornthwaite and the Marxist-Leninist Party consider Canada’s First Nations as independent and sovereign.

“We will establish relations on a new basis of respect and equality, as Nation to Nation relations,” he said. “In all matters, agreement must be beneficial to both sides. No stronger party should coerce another into one position or another, but rather, any agreement will be based on a dialogue between equals.”

He said the history of colonialism in Canada, with the attendant marginalization of First Nations and their people, is a blot on our history and energetic measures must be taken to move past that shameful legacy and into a new era of respect and equality.

“Canada needs a modern constitution, free from the entrenched privileges of wealth and race,” he said. “Communities will play a central role in the creation of that constitution and the First Nations will be part of that process.”

As a first measure, the Marxist-Leninist party calls for an immediate inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“The protection of our most vulnerable populations is the first priority of any democratic government,” he said.

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