Seeking a significant commitment

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TORONTO – Three months ago, the leaders of Canada’s major political parties stood up in Parliament and apologized to residential school survivors and promised fair treatment for the future.

Now the country is headed to wand an Oct. 14 election; and National Chief Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, wants to make sure that there’s a follow-through on the powerful sentiments articulated June 11.

“The most important social justice issue in the country is First Nations poverty,” Fontaine said in an interview. “That presents a huge challenge to the country.

“We are hoping to see a significant commitment from each of the political parties on what action they’re prepared to take to eradicate First Nations poverty, both in reserve communities and our urban communities.”

Fontaine has written to Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Stéphane Dion, New Democrat Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May.

“We see that June 11 apology as an important staging point because the apology was also to do with reconciliation,” he said. “We want to hear from each of the parties as to what definition they give to reconciliation.”

The AFN will produce a report card based on the answers provided to a questionnaire that asks each party to set out its position on a range of issues, including:

* Consultation over resource development.

* Educational funding for First Nations schools at the same level as in provincial schools.

* Ratification of the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which aimed to eliminate disparities in health care, housing, education, water treatment and economic opportunity but was shelved by the Harper government when it was elected in 2006.

* Implementation of the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Under Harper, Canada changed its position on the declaration, and was one of four states to vote against it (the others were the United States, Australia and New Zealand).

Such measures would put the words of the apology into action, said Gina Cosentino, Fontaine’s adviser on governmental relations.

The AFN is also in discussion with the media, she said: “We’re asking them to be accountable to First Nations people to ensure that they are not a forgotten people and their voices will be heard.”

The television network consortium that’s organizing the leaders’ debates Oct. 1 and 2 has been reminded of the importance of having a question on aboriginal issues.

One of the first aboriginal controversies in the election has been the release of the Liberal platform that revealed a plan to scale back on its Kelowna commitment, from $5.1 billion over five years to $2.1 billion over two years.

However, Dion did undertake to hold a First Minister’s Meeting on aboriginal issues and to sign the U.N. declaration.

The Conservatives list the residential schools apology and a new tribunal that will fast-track long-standing land claim disputes – under certain conditions – among their achievements in office.

But they had to apologize for a Quebec Conservative party official’s racist comment to a delegation of Algonquins of Barriere Lake, where there has been a long-running dispute with Indian Affairs Canada which has most recently been accused of meddling in band elections.

Getting the vote out is key. That started in 2005, with a joint AFN-Elections Canada initiative to get information out in 11 aboriginal languages.

Other organizations are also mobilizing. The Web site FirstPeoplesVOTE.com has been set up by the Anishinabek Nation, which comprises 42 Ontario communities. Grand Council Chief John Beaucage called on politicians to support initiatives like the Anishinabek Nation economic blueprint, a 20-year plan to address poverty, inadequate housing and negative health indicators.

Traditionally, First Nations people focus on band elections in their own communities and tend to ignore federal or provincial elections.

In 2006, general turnout was 64 percent while the aboriginal turnout was 48 percent, according to Elections Canada. That was an improvement over 2004, when the aboriginal turnout was 40 percent.

Although aboriginal people make up 4 percent of the population, Fontaine noted that there were 63 ridings (Canada has a total of 308 ridings, or electoral districts) where a significant aboriginal population coincides with a slim margin of victory.

“We recognize that we can influence the outcome – but only if we participate.”

One indicator of participation is the number of aboriginal candidates who are running for Parliament. In 2004, there were 27 aboriginal candidates; this time, there are more than 30.

They include four incumbent Members of Parliament – two Conservatives, Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South, Manitoba) and Rob Clarke (Desnethe/Missinippi/Churchill River in Saskatchewan), and two Liberals, Todd Russell (Labrador) and Tina Keeper (Churchill, Manitoba).

Nancy Karetak-Lindell, the Liberal MP for Nunavut, stepped down. The race to replace her will be an all-Inuk affair, featuring entrepreneur and former Fulbright scholar Kirt Ejesiak for the Liberals; former videojournalist Paul Irngaut for the NDP; Peter Ittinuar, the first Inuk elected to the House of Commons, for the Greens; and Leona Aglukkaq, who gave up her job as territorial health minister to run for the Conservatives.

A recent arrival on the political scene is the First Peoples National Party, which plans to be a voice for First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and is fielding five candidates across the country.