AFN outlines First Nations election priorities ahead of fall vote

OTTAWA — 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.

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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.

"We must develop a vision of environmental stewardship that is global and holistic, taking us beyond existing targets and timelines, toward a sustainable future for all generations," it says.

The national group is also looking for recognition that First Nations treaty rights would allow them to develop and implement environmental regulations and impact-assessment regimes.

A number of First Nations have mounted legal challenges against the federal government on major energy projects, including the Trans Mountain pipeline, on grounds of not having been properly consulted — some of which have been successful.

The AFN is now asking the federal government to support First Nations-led environmental and regulatory reviews as part of a more collaborative approach to environmental stewardship.

This 2019 election document builds on the AFN's previous "Closing the Gap" document, distributed to each party during the last federal election. Bellegarde says he is confident his organization, which includes First Nations chiefs from across Canada, was able to influence the policies of political parties in 2015 and hopes to do so again this time.

One area where "sweeping changes" are needed is in the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal-justice system and in jails and prisons in Canada, the AFN says.

In 2017-18, Indigenous inmates were 28 per cent of federal prisoners, despite making up just 4.3 per cent of the population of Canada, according to the annual report of the federal correctional investigator.

The AFN is calling for new restorative-justice systems to promote community healing, reconciliation and reintegration, displacing punitive measures.

The group also notes the role of judges, asking for First Nations appointees at all levels of courts, "particularly the appointment of the first First Nations Supreme Court justice."

The AFN is also calling for more economic-development opportunities for First Nations, including better entrepreneur programs for First Nations women and youth, as well as a First Nations infrastructure bank.

Better access to safe drinking water and greater investments in housing, health care, education and high-speed Internet are also ongoing top priorities for First Nations across Canada with many suggested actions for improvement.

Canada has made commitments to First Nations people, and a key part of reconciliation is honouring promises, the election-priorities document says, explaining its title.

"This plan we call 'Honouring Promises' points the way to real, transformative change. The time to act is now."

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