Indigenous issues sidelined as election day approaches in Canada

As the 36-day snap election called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advances towards Monday’s vote, the Liberals and Conservatives remain stuck in a statistical tie in the polls.

It was a largely rambling campaign with few highlights and a debate in English that was widely criticized for using a format that actually inhibited the debate.

To a large extent, this remains an election on the necessity of an election. Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader I introduced this week, and Jagmeet Singh of the NDP continue to call the calling of a pandemic election unnecessary and reckless during a public health emergency. (My report on Mr. Trudeau and his campaign will appear this weekend.)

[Read: To Unseat Trudeau, Canada’s Top Conservative Leans Left]

No other problem has reached the point of allowing party leaders to significantly redefine the campaign. And many important topics have been overlooked.

Exhibit A among those that was overlooked was Indigenous issues.

The discovery of the remains of former students in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, and then elsewhere in the following weeks, shocked many Canadians who live outside of Indigenous communities and has revived the national debate on reconciliation. But, for the most part, that conversation did not carry over to the countryside.

Mr. Singh and other candidates challenged Mr. Trudeau for failing to bring clean drinking water to all Indigenous communities during his first five years in office.

“It’s definitely not the capacity, it’s definitely not the lack of technology, it’s definitely not the money, because we have the resources. We can do it, ”Singh said during a stop at the Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario. “So what is it? I don’t buy for a second that it’s anything other than political will.

Mr Singh gave few details on how he would succeed where Mr Trudeau’s government struggled despite allocating just over C $ 2 billion to the effort and creating a new one. cabinet post, Minister of Indigenous Services.

Indeed, Mr. Trudeau often brags about the way the government provided drinking water to 109 First Nations communities. But that doesn’t mean the problem is gone. There were 105 First Nations boil water orders in effect when Mr. Trudeau took office. But as the government addressed issues in some communities, issues arose elsewhere. Today, there are 52 boil orders left.

“We have action plans and project teams in each of these communities with the money and the expertise to do it,” Ben Chin, Mr. Trudeau’s senior policy adviser in Burnaby, told me. in British Columbia this week. “I’m sure other boil water orders will occur and we will have to adapt to them as well.”

But none of that surfaced during the campaign, other than a bloc of Indigenous issues during the debate in English. Despite a year that made headlines, Indigenous issues are still on the sidelines of mainstream Canadian politics.

Earlier this year, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the New Democratic Party member who represents Nunavut, said she would not stand for re-election in part because of the difficulties she has faced as an Indigenous lawmaker.

“Systems are designed to work for certain people”, she told the Globe and Mail. “They are middle-aged white men.”

In this election there is 50 Indigenous candidates, according to the Assembly of First Nations.

In general, it appears that Aboriginal people are less likely to vote than other people in Canada. Elections Canada’s analysis only counts aboriginal people living on reserve, leaving out many others. But in 2019, just over 51 percent of this population voted, up from 67 percent of all eligible voters.

Part of it can be geographic. Many reserves are found in sparsely populated constituencies that span large swathes of provinces, meaning that many communities are rarely, if ever, visited by candidates wishing to become their local MPs.

Sometimes there are technical barriers that the pandemic can only intensify. The Assembly of First Nations collaborated with Elections Canada this year to address issues like voter registration on reserve.

But many aboriginal people have told me that they choose not to vote because they do not see themselves as Canadians and see the vote as endorsing a system that has been forced on them.

“A lot of Indigenous people I know in urban and family communities don’t vote on purpose because they feel Indigenous people are irrelevant to local and national politics, that Indigenous people don’t have a voice,” said Suzanne Stewart, member of the Dene First Nation of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and Associate Professor of Indigenous Healing at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Professor Stewart told me that she would vote on Monday – for an NDP – but only to honor the people who fought to give this right to Indigenous people, something that was fully accomplished in 1960.

“This is why I am voting, not because I believe everyone cares or that we are relevant,” she said.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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