Indigenous issues have taken a backseat in government policies: Yellowhead Institute members

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By Reedah Hayder and Iman Adem

Members of Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research centre at Ryerson University, discussed what the 2019 federal election means for Indigenous peoples, during a live taping of Media Indigena, a podcast that provides a platform to discuss Indigenous issues more-in depth.

Hayden King, director at Yellowhead Institute, and Vanessa Watts, professor of Indigenous studies at McMaster University joined Rick Harp, host of  Media Indigena, for a live discussion at the Rogers Communications Centre on Thursday.  

According to King, the 2015 federal election was seen as an era of hopeful reconciliation with the publication of the Indian Act and the end of the Harper Conservative government. 

“Empirically, the Liberals of four years did invest a lot more in [Indigenous] communities than any other government,” King said. 

However, King also expressed disappointment in the Liberal government and said he expected much more from the promises made. 

Watts added that these accomplishments “[are] no victory, [they are] an embarrassment” to be achieved so late in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. 

“In 2015, there was definitely guarded, cautious optimism,” King said. “Fast forward to 2019. The supposed era of reconciliation does not appear.” 

According to King, many “promises Justin Trudeau made the first time around didn’t materialize.”

In October 2019, Trudeau’s government appealed the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children separated from families due to underfunded child-welfare system.

Federal leaders on handling Indigenous issues

According to Watts, as the 2019 federal debates took place, a general lack of discussion around Indigenous issues was evident. Only 20 minutes of the first English-language debate was dedicated to Indigenous issues. 

Almost immediately, the segment turned to a conversation about pipelines, climate change and Quebec.

Watts said if the Trans Mountain pipeline is synonymous with Indigenous issues, then the communities’ matters were very prominent in federal debates.

“The Indian problem has been repackaged. Indians are seen as a barrier to economic imperative,” said Watts. “It’s a method of distracting people from real Indian problems.”

In June 2019, the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty of historic and ongoing genocide. The term ‘genocide’ was not mentioned in the debate by any party leader. 

The viral interview with New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh, received many Indigenous communities’ support when he highlighted the lack of action against the water crisis on reserves.

“If this were an issue in Toronto, or Vancouver or in any city around the world or around Canada, there would be no debate. We would get it done.” Singh said.

Harp said, “What’s the ground for Canadians, is the ceiling for Indigenous peoples”. 

King and Watts also discussed whether an individual Indigenous party is necessary for the federal government to take greater action on Indigenous matters. 

King said, “if a party is respectful, has integrity and compassion”, then Indigenous issues will be given the necessary attention, though Watts was doubtful citing that past parties, such as the Liberals, have been openly accepting and promising but their actions spoke otherwise. 

Voting: an ongoing controversial act in Indigenous communities

In an analysis released in October, the national Indigenous advocacy organization stated there were at least 62 First Nations, Métis and Inuit candidates who ran in the 2019 federal election. 

Overall, 10 Indigenous candidates were elected to the House of Commons; four First Nations, four Métis and two Inuit candidates. 

“I have walked to polling stations, only to turn away because I was so overcome with disgust and guilt,” said King. “When you vote, you’re surrendering your sovereignty and legitimizing government control over Indigenous peoples.” 

Watts, however, is an active voter and feels that voting is one way of holding the government accountable. 

The live discussion also touched on The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and how it has arguably no longer remained non-partisan, according to King.

He mentioned how in some ways the AFN has seemingly become an agent for the Liberal government. “The AFN is representing a certain type of First Nation politics and governance and interests, that is drifting further and further away from what communities are asking for and what communities are interested in.”

The full discussion will be available on Media Indigena as a podcast by the end of October.

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