Skip to main content

Canadian election bad news for Natives

As the right-wing Conservative Party of Canada danced to power on Jan. 23,
First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders across the country were left
wondering if the win would be as bad as it appeared.

The election of a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper was not
welcomed by most Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Metis. Native leaders in
British Columbia even went so far as to urge Canada's one million
aboriginal people to vote strategically in what they called an "anyone but
Harper" campaign.

Over the past two years, Canadian aboriginal leaders have gained greater
prominence in federal and provincial politics, fueled by numerous court
victories affirming aboriginal rights and title throughout the country.

This past November, at a First Ministers meeting held in Kelowna, British
Columbia, national aboriginal leaders sat with the prime minister of Canada
and premiers from the 10 provinces and three territories to discuss
aboriginal issues. After years of fighting for "a seat at the table," the
day had finally come.

After two days of meetings, the leaders signed the Kelowna Accord, which
committed $5.1 billion to close the gap between aboriginal and
non-aboriginal Canadians.

The money would go towards improved health, education, housing, and
economic opportunities for Canada's first peoples.

The federal government promised another $1 billion to compensate the
survivors of Canada's Indian Residential Schools system, where thousands of
aboriginal children were physically, sexually, emotionally and spiritually
abused in what one British Columbia Supreme Court judge called
"institutionalized pedophelia."

But behind the handshakes and smiles, a dark cloud loomed.

Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal government were barely holding
on to power.

A scandal involving multi-million-dollar advertising deals with
Liberal-friendly ad agencies and kickback schemes was crippling the
government.

The Liberal Party did not have enough seats in Parliament to govern with a
majority. For their legislations to pass, they had to convince members of
Parliament from the three other parties to vote with them in support of
bills. As the end of 2005 approached, the Liberals lost their grip on the
reins of power after Harper's Conservative opposition led a vote of
no-confidence against the government.

Harper had been waiting 12 years for this. A Calgary economist, Harper had
risen up through the western-based Reform Party as it became the Canadian
Alliance Party, then merged with another right-wing party to become the
Conservative Party of Canada.

Going into the federal election, the Conservatives skipped over aboriginal
issues. In press conferences, they made no commitments to uphold the
Kelowna Accord, saying they would have to look at the federal budget before
making any statements. They also refused to commit to the Indian
Residential Schools Resolution.

Two Conservative candidates running in British Columbia drew the ire of
Native leaders after being repeatedly charged with interfering in
aboriginal salmon fisheries, claiming the constitutionally protected
fisheries were "race-based" and therefore illegal.

Behind the scenes, Tom Flanagan (author of "First Nations, Second
Thoughts") was guiding the Conservative Party's aboriginal policies. His
influence was clear in Conservative statements about treaty negotiations
and how they should be legislated rather than constitutionally protected,
which would make treaties susceptible to the ever-changing whims of
governments.

Many Conservative candidates were prevented from speaking to the press;
Harper had seen previous elections blown because of statements made by
loose-cannon candidates, and wasn't about to let that happen this time.

As Election Day neared, Conservatives surged ahead in the polls. Native
leaders grew increasingly nervous and did everything possible to get their
people to the polls.

Days before the Jan. 23 vote, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine
sent Harper a letter asking for clarification on outstanding aboriginal
issues. He never heard back. The centrist Liberals and left-leaning New
Democratic Party candidates also tried to push the Conservatives into
making firm commitments, to no avail. Harper was not going to put his lead
in jeopardy.

As results began streaming in from across the country, initially swaying
back-and-forth between the two main contenders, the only question was not
whether the Conservatives would glide into government, but whether they
would have a minority or majority.

Many were surprised Canadians had given Harper only 124 seats, a weaker
minority than the Liberals had, and far from the 155 seats needed for a
majority government.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, a close ally of Fontaine, won his seat
in Montreal, but resigned as leader of the Liberal Party after winning 103
seats for his party. The Bloc Quebecois (a federal party only concerned
about issues affecting the province of Quebec) won 51 seats and the NDP
took 29.

A record number of aboriginal candidates ran for the four major parties
this election, with four elected to the House of Commons in Ottawa.

Actress Tina Keeper (star of the "North of 60" television series) is now a
Liberal member of Parliament for the riding of Churchill in northern
Manitoba. Todd Russell returns to the house as Liberal MP for Labrador, as
does Nancy Karetak-Lindell, representing the territory of Nunavut. Metis
Rod Bruinooge won the riding of Winnipeg South for his Conservative Party,
narrowly beating longtime Liberal MP Reg Alcock.

Although the election results between the two main parties were closer than
most pollsters had guessed, the Liberals could not change the country's
appetite for change, which is often the strongest force within a democracy.

Voting against 15 years of Liberal rule, Canadians were careful to not hand
the unproven Harper too much power and have forced him to step carefully
with his minority government.

The challenge facing Native leaders will be to keep the positive momentum
of the past year rolling despite the change in government.

The AFN has committed to work with the new government "to ensure a better
quality of life for First Nations and a stronger country for all
Canadians."

Other leaders, realizing the challenges of gaining the attention of the
Conservative government, have vowed to push opposition parties harder to
ensure aboriginal voices are heard at the top levels.

It will be at least a year before aboriginal issues make it onto the
Conservative radar as their party rushes to make campaign promises on
health, child care, tax cuts and the economy into law. In the meantime,
leaders who fought so hard for the Kelowna Accord will sit and wait,
watching the dance that is Canadian politics: two steps forward, three
steps back and a big slide to the right.

Indian Country Today correspondent David Wiwchar is the managing editor and
senior reporter for Ha-Shilth-Sa, Canada's oldest First Nations newspaper,
published by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, British
Columbia. During the federal election, he was the guest journalist and
political pundit for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.