The Conservative Party, whose candidates mostly ignored aboriginal groups’ pre-election interview requests and declined to answer questionnaires on their stance to the nation’s indigenous population during the lead-in to the May 2 election, has finally gone public on aboriginal issues.
“Canada’s aboriginal peoples are central to Canada’s history, and our government has made it a priority to renew and deepen our relationship,” said Governor-General David Johnston in the Speech from the Throne on June 3. “The contribution of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples will be important to our future prosperity. Concerted action is needed to address the barriers to social and economic participation that many Aboriginal Canadians face.”
This includes, he said, an upcoming meeting (still not scheduled) between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who won his first majority since coming to power in 2005, and the country’s aboriginal leaders.
Aboriginal leaders found the statements encouraging but were waiting to see how they played out in action.
“While we did not see much that was new in the speech, we are encouraged by other discussions reported today that the government is prepared to engage with us on a First Nations–Crown Gathering in the near future,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement. “The fact that the government has made it a priority to renew and deepen its relationship with First Nations is important. We agree that 'concerted action' is needed and will work with the Government to quickly affirm a clear plan of action. If we work together, we can create successful outcomes that achieve our objectives, respect First Nations rights and give power back to our people instead of the government.”
The Throne Speech did not lay out a plan per se but did touch on a number of issues, including education, clean water and land management, that are top priorities among the country’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
“Our government will work with aboriginal communities, provinces and territories to meet this challenge,” Johnson said. “It will help open the door to greater economic development by providing new investments in First Nations land management. It will promote access to clean water and the deployment of clean energy technology in aboriginal and northern communities.”
Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, called the speech “a strong statement in support of the Arctic, and Aboriginal Peoples” but expressed a wait-and-see attitude.
“The Governor General notes that ‘our government has made Canada’s North a cornerstone of its agenda,’ ” she said in a statement. “We will look forward to these words being transformed into concrete action in the forthcoming budget, and in the weeks and months to come.”
She greeted with relief the government’s stated commitment to working with the Northwest Territories and the private sector to finish the Dempster Highway with a final link between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, realizing a long-held “vision of connecting Canada by road from sea to sea to sea,” Johnson said.
“The completion of the Dempster highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is very important for the Inuvialuit communities in the Northwest Territories, and has been requested for years,” Simon said. “The support to improve Canada’s digital infrastructure is vital for the Arctic. Connectivity speeds in our 53 Inuit communities are not at the same high speed as they are in southern Canada.”
Although she noted “many references made to Canada’s natural environment,” she added, “however I did not hear anything about the issue of our time—climate change—and how adaptation measures are needed now for Inuit communities in the Arctic.”
The speech earned points from both Simon and Atleo for mentioning education as a top priority once again, with promises that the government “will engage with partners to make concrete, positive changes to give First Nations children a better education so that they can realize their dreams. We will also expand adult basic education programming in the territories to help to increase education and employment levels.”
Matters of governance and property rights were also touched on, as the Johnson said the government would introduce “legislation to ensure that people living on reserve have the same matrimonial real property rights and protections as other Canadians” and saying the government will “support transparency for First Nations communities by requiring their chiefs and councilors to publish their salaries and expenses.”
First Nations and other aboriginal groups have resisted what they see as the intrusion of the federal government into their affairs regarding accountability and water regulation, and the AFN statement cautioned, “these are important issues that First Nations want to work on, but there must be a collaborative approach to deliver on real outcomes.”