Federal party leaders made their pitches to Canada's top First Nations organization on Tuesday, with Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair each promising a new "nation-to-nation" relationship, a renewed emphasis on education, and a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
But there was one notable absence as the Assembly of First Nations annual gathering converged on Montreal: neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor his Aboriginal Affairs Minister bothered to show up, apparently writing off an increasingly politicized voting block that seems to be mobilizing against the Conservatives.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May will be addressing the Assembly on Wednesday.
In a keynote speech to the Assembly, National Chief Perry Bellegarde called on First Nations across the country to come out to vote, stressing that they could turn the tide in swing ridings.
"I want us to mobilize the vote," he said. "We can make a difference in at least 51 ridings."
According to Elections Canada, turnout on First Nations reserves was under 45 percent in the 2011 election, compared to 61 percent for the general population. Community initiatives are rolling out efforts to close that gap, planning rallies, social media campaigns, and registration clinics to boost participation.
In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's scathing report on the history of residential schools, First Nations leaders are demanding more than empty apologies. For the federal government to show that it takes reconciliation seriously, Bellegarde said, it needs to end the "patriarchal imposition" of policies, address funding gaps, protect Indigenous languages, and call a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Mulcair and Trudeau each tried to convince the assembly that their parties are best suited to change the relationship between the government and First Nations. Mulcair promised a "new era" of real consultation between equal partners. He said he would create a cabinet-level committee—which he would chair as prime minister—to ensure that government policies respect rights recognized in treaties with First Nations, and would tone down the expensive legal battles Harper's government has fought against Indigenous land rights.
"Meaningful consultation is not just a catchphrase," he said. "It's the law."
Though Mulcair promised to "end the discrepancy in education" that holds First Nations children back, he did not provide details about how much funding he would contribute to address problems on reserves. Apart from sub-standard education, many reserves in Canada suffer from dilapidated housing and contaminated water supplies.
Trudeau's comments on funding were slightly more concrete. He promised "equitable funding" for education, on-reserve child and family services, and protecting Indigenous languages. He said the Liberals would restore the Kelowna accord, a funding arrangement that the Conservatives shelved after coming to power in 2006, and "immediately lift" the two percent funding cap on First Nation programs.
Trudeau also said that he would "conduct a full review of the legislation unilaterally imposed on Aboriginal peoples through the Harper government" and would rescind anything inconsistent with treaty rights. Like Mulcair, he promised an end to top-down policy and to introduce measures to enhance Aboriginal self-governance.
"Canada needs a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with aboriginal communities," he said. "We will develop a federal reconciliation framework in full partnership with aboriginal peoples."
Both party leaders promised to promptly call a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Mulcair said he would do so within his first 100 days in office, and would work with Indigenous leaders to set out its parameters.
Neither of the two missed out on the opportunity to blast the Conservatives for ignoring the file, and for their lukewarm response to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mulcair said he fully accepted the Commission's finding that Canada's residential school system was a form of "cultural genocide" and said he had pressed Harper to request an apology from the Catholic Church for its role in running the schools, to no avail.
He also criticized Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who sat beside him as the Commission's summary report was read, for remaining silent in the midst of ringing applause. Valcourt, who snubbed the Assembly's conference, was unable to take the stage and defend himself.
Valcourt's office released a statement saying he couldn't make it to address the nation's largest Aboriginal association because he had to be in his home province of New Brunswick for "important events." According to a federal government press release, he was due to attend a rodeo festival.
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