What Do Prominent Indigenous People Want From the Next Prime Minister?

We spoke to artists, community leaders, academics and writers about the issues that really matter.

by James Wilt
Oct 7 2015, 3:50pm

"Audrey Siegl, a Musqueam artist and activist in the Arctic Ocean." Photo via Facebook/Idle No More

Aboriginal people represent the fastest-growing demographic in the country and many social issues (incarceration, youth unemployment, suicide) disproportionately impact First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples and communities. Despite such realities, little attention seems to have been paid to Indigenous issues during this black hole of a federal election, which has led AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde to repeatedly call out national leaders.

Yesterday, VICE's Matty Matheson was able to ask Stephen Harper about murdered and missing Indigenous women.

"Most of these murders, sad as they are, are in fact solved," the Conservative leader said. "We are way past the time for further study, this is a time for action, and our government is going to proceed with our action plan."

And earlier this week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told VICE he would get clean water to 93 First Nations communities within five years of being elected.

But these are hardly the only issues facing Canada's Indigenous population, so we asked ten prominent Indigenous figures about what our national leaders should be focusing on during this election.

Tanya Tagaq. Photo via Flickr user Levi Manchak

Tanya Tagaq, throat singer and winner of 2014 Polaris Prize for Animism (Inuk)

There are many things that could be done. A shift in the education system, forming a curriculum separately: one for the South of Canada to teach the actual history and reasoning behind what's happening, and for the North of Canada to incorporate healing—almost group therapy—with a shift in the judicial system so we can have our power within our own laws. Simple things, like adequate healthcare and maybe honouring the treaties and constitutional rights of human beings. Very simple, basic things that can be used to move forward. I'm proud of fellow Canadians for finally giving an ear and a voice to people that are here trying to say "this is what's happening." People are starting to believe. I'm terrified to my bones of the current government. It's been absolutely disgraceful. I don't know how any Canadian can feel proud about this.

Tanya Kappo, lawyer, co-editor of The Winter we Danced (Cree)

There has to be a fundamental shift in how the government approaches and responds to the realities faced by Indigenous people. This can only happen if the relationship is repaired. There is a profound and intense awakening happening among Indigenous people that demands authentic and proactive changes too. Since 1867, the government used policy-based approaches and responses to what should've been a respectful and equal relationship. This has not only damaged the relationship, it also led to tragic outcomes for Indigenous people. To this day, the government continues to take it upon itself to determine what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and the level of resources. If the government continues to approach Indigenous people as just an issue that needs to be addressed, or as a social problem that needs fixing, tragic outcomes are guaranteed.

Hayden King, director of Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, assistant professor of politics and public administration, frequent contributor to the Globe & Mail (Anishinaabe)

I suppose transforming the Canadian state and its attendant institutions is a pretty big issue. Scrapping an exploitative economic system, amending the constitution, revising federalism, subverting the justice system, etc. In the more pragmatic sense I think the "big issues" are ending land theft, murdered women and children, filthy water. Things we all know are outrageous but are somehow acceptable when it comes to Indigenous people. While I have never discounted the capacity of Indigenous peoples to force change, I am reluctant to expect much from politicians who have, over the course of 150 years, produced very little in the way of results or demonstrated any real capacity for sincerity.

Canada's Waterless Communities: Shoal Lake 40, from VICE Canada Reports

Leela Gilday, singer/songwriter and 2015 Juno nominee for Heart of the People (Dene)

The biggest issues I'd like the government to focus on are education, health and justice. There's a huge gap between how much the government spends on First Nations and non-First Nations students in Canada, particularly on-reserve schools. There's this perception that Native people have a free ride with education and that's just not the reality. There are 94 recommendations the Truth and Reconciliation report released. There's already a blueprint out there for improving the relationship between the government and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. It's very comprehensive. The Conservative government didn't set a very high bar. They can only do better. Given these tools the TRC has laid out, I think it's a no-brainer. Canada, around the world, has this great reputation. If you're a First Nations person in Canada, there are some third-world conditions in our country, and people are starting to wake up to that. I'm very hopeful the next leader will pay more attention. This is a long game working towards healing and reconciliation.

Taiaiake Alfred, professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at the University of Victoria, author of Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom and Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Mohawk)

My position is I don't vote. The Canadian system is the Canadian system, and we have our own nation. It's the two-world vision that us Mohawks have. Treaties are between nations. If it follows that Indigenous people say the foundation of our relationship is a treaty, then where's the logical connection between that and saying you're a Canadian who participates in Canadian politics as a Canadian citizen? You can't have it both ways: you're either a participant in a treaty relationship or you're a Canadian citizen. There's a willful manipulation of our treaty relationship and I just find that to be ill-advised in the sense they're obviously putting themselves in alliance with one or the other political party, which makes them even more politically vulnerable than they are right now to retribution from the governing party should the Conservatives win again. It's something I don't think is a very intelligent movement from the part of Native leaders, asides from the fundamental hypocrisy of it.

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, former reporter for CTV Winnipeg and CBC Manitoba (Cree)

We need to see improvements in housing. And not just asking for money to build the houses, but asking for support in some of the initiatives that some communities are trying, including building their own homes—log cabins and homes—but they need support from government for utilities to come in and hook them up, for example. They need support there where they could empower communities to build their own houses. At the same time, it's part of the fiduciary responsibility to help take care of some of the needs of the community. And then of course the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. We know the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People made the call. The provinces all individually made the call. I'm hopeful to work with a government that's receptive to improving the lives of the children and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and also as a way to stop the trend and curb that. And restoring funding to some of the agencies that work with our First Nations, including MKO. There have been huge cuts there and we're all struggling.

Still from Drag the Red: Meet the Volunteers Searching for Bodies in Winnipeg's Red River. Watch here

Gord Hill, author of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book, founder of Warrior Publications (Kwakwaka'wakw)

I'm not concerned with who is prime minister but rather in how we as Indigenous peoples can self-organize our struggle to more effectively resist corporate invasion and state control. I have no interest in lobbying the state or making appeals to political authorities, so in that respect what political party is in power has no relation to the grassroots struggles of Indigenous peoples. I would also say that, ultimately, there is little fundamental difference between the main political parties. Progressive people who advocate voting for the NDP fail to remember the history of the NDP when it was in power in BC, as it was the NDP that initiated the fraudulent treaty process in 1992 and who authorized the deployment of some 450 heavily armed RCMP officers at Gustafsen Lake/Ts'Peten in the summer of 1995, where they engaged in a month-long siege of a Sundance camp and attempted to murder land defenders.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, folk singer and winner of 2015 Polaris Prize for Power in the Blood (Cree)

There's not just one thing. It really is kind of a general attitude to whether your ears are open to what people are really wanting. Don't get mad at The Government. It's not The Government. It's not your country. It's not as if you have to hate Canada. It's an administration, a handful of guys. They don't do everything up front and in a legal way: it's a lot of nasty phone calls from the backroom. It's a lot of narrow, narrow minds not paying attention to marginalized people or climate issues. I say they're stuck on the bottom line. There's a lot of networking that needs to be done that probably could not have been done 20 years ago, but it can now. Indigenous people are pretty clear as to what our needs are.

Leah Gazan, lecturer at faculty of education at the University of Winnipeg and president of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg (Lakota)

One of the main issues we hear a lot about in the news is around missing and missing Indigenous women, which has certainly not been addressed and also is reflective of a number of disparities we have in our communities: access to affordable housing, access to education, higher rates of poverty all compound together forcing women to wind up in precarious situations that are often dangerous. There is no political party in history that's had a seamless relationship with Indigenous peoples. We're not delusional. But I do think there are stark differences between Mulcair and Harper. For example, Harper is the only leader who has clearly indicated a total disregard of the crisis of violence against indigenous women, going so far to say it's "not on his radar." All other parties have indicated there's a crisis and agree on the need for an immediate inquiry. I think we're in a time in history that's pretty scary with true violent cuts that have left us scrambling.

Katherena Vermette, poet, novelist, and filmmaker, winner of the 2013 Governor General's Award for English-language poetry for North End Love Songs (Métis)

My first thought is an inquiry into the issues affecting missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I go there because this is an issue close to my heart, but also I think the inquiry—its calls and subsequent rejection by the Harper regime—has become a symbol that the next PM should address. But there are so many issues, dire and life threatening issues that need to be addressed.

[When I asked this to a table full of Indigenous women, leaders in their fields and communities] they mentioned water! So many communities do not have access to clean drinking water. Or education (on-reserve students get significantly less, about two thirds less of what an off reserve student receives) or the battle over oil! These are all threatening communities. How about a Canadian government that respects the sovereignty of these nations? One that doesn't go to court (and waste taxpayers' dollars) every time they disagree with these nations, only to lose (which they do the vast majority of the time). We have proven time and time again how resilient and amazing we can be, no matter what the opposition. I want to be optimistic that a change in government will only have positive effects on the lives of Indigenous people. I really do.