In the wake of a federal election that barely altered the Canadian political landscape, we asked Indigenous leaders in the NWT if the campaign had done anything for reconciliation.
While the result ultimately returned another Liberal minority government in a little-changed Parliament, the major parties spent more than a month making a range of promises to Indigenous peoples about how they would be better served in future.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya is unsure much has changed.
“This is what we’ve got to work with,” he told Cabin Radio. “The minority government has to work with the other parties in Ottawa to ensure their new priorities are implemented for all of us in Canada.”
In this election, the Liberal Party promised to confront the legacy of residential schools by funding and building a permanent home for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, investing an extra $1.4 billion in a distinctions-based mental health and wellness strategy for Indigenous people, and helping communities to continue the search for unmarked graves at former institutions.
The party said it would finally eliminate long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities, pledging “any investments necessary” to end one of the most egregious federal failures of recent decades.
And among other pledges, the Liberals said they would work harder to protect the wellbeing of Indigenous children and families, for example by supporting the transition of child protection to Indigenous governments and creating an early learning and childcare system focused on Indigenous needs.
Since he was first elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to fully implement the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Trudeau also said his government would implement the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women when they were released in 2019.
Yakeleya said such promises had been made and broken throughout Canadian history.
“The government must realize their track record with Indigenous people is not good,” Yakeleya said.
He referred to Giant Mine, near Yellowknife, as one example. A massive remediation project is under way to freeze 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide left underground, in Yellowknives Dene territory, when the former gold mine closed.
“Look today at the mess they made, and the suffering of the Dettah and Ndilǫ people,” Yakeleya said.
“Trust wasn’t in the forefront of their thinking. It was only to take resources to fill their bank accounts, but at the same time, not share with the Dene people. It’s no different with Norman Wells or any other places in the North that the government touched.
“Trust has been broken, and it’ll take a long time for them to gain that full trust.”
In Colville Lake, Chief Wilbert Kochon of the Sahtu Dene Council and Behdzi Ahda First Nation said he was disappointed an election happened at all.
“They called an election too soon, spent too much money … when it could have waited another two years,” he said. “Now, they’re back to where they started.”
Settling land claims, improving living conditions
President Garry Bailey of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation said he was “happy with the results” of Monday’s election as it allows the nation and the Liberal government to continue fostering a relationship – but action needs to happen much faster.
“Things have been going very slowly,” Bailey said. “I think they’ve got to quit talking and start walking the walk.”
Bailey cited settling the Métis Nation’s land claim as a priority. Negotiations for land, resources, and self-government between the nation and territorial and federal governments are ongoing, though Bailey said they are now entering “the final stages.”
In May, the nation signed a framework agreement with the federal government that brought it closer to a settled land claim and laid out groundwork for self-government.
“It’s getting our position moving forward so that we can move on with our own economic opportunities and have management over our land recognized and our rights affirmed,” Bailey said.
“It’s a long time coming for the Métis. They signed treaties here in 1899, 1900 … that was when they did divide and conquer, and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation has been left out ever since.
“There has been a lot of hardship so, when you’re talking about reconciliation, there’s a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the Métis Nation.”
For Kochon, housing is a key issue.
“There’s a lot of other stuff, but I know housing is number-one right across Canada for Indigenous people,” Kochon said.
Ensuring Indigenous people have equitable access to adequate housing is mentioned in at least 10 of the 231 Calls to Justice offered by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The Liberal Party has promised at least $300 million toward an Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy, as well as a National Indigenous Housing Centre that will “see Indigenous people overseeing federal Indigenous housing programs once fully realized.”
What this will look like in practice is not yet clear.
Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik of the Gwich’in Tribal Council condemned what he called the “second-world living conditions” that Gwich’in people experience.
“There are issues around housing, and drinking water, and even roads in our communities and infrastructure,” he said. “We know all too well in the North that many of our communities are just simply ageing.
“We need some new infrastructure to revitalize some energy into the communities ,and to bring our communities into the modern world with investments in technology.”
‘A meaningful partnership’
Earlier this year, the federal government passed Bill C-15, which seeks to align Canadian legislation with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The declaration affirms an array of legal, political, social, and economic rights for Indigenous peoples, including self-determination, self-government, and freedom from discrimination.
Kyikavichik applauds that progress but warned the resulting changes to how society operates, which the new government must introduce, can’t just scratch the surface.
“The whole system needs to be modified to better suit the unique needs of Indigenous people in northern Canada,” he said, “so there’s a level of care and compassion to ensure the health and wellness of our people is being looked after.
“If they still have policies and procedures that discriminate against Indigenous peoples, there’s no point even adopting that type of legislation if it doesn’t change the approach to the bureaucracy and how they handle Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories.”
This September 30 is the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Over the course of the summer, more than 6,500 unmarked graves were found at former residential school sites in Indigenous communities across the country.
As colonial history continues to shape the present, Yakeleya advocated for a complete reset of the way the federal government interacts with Indigenous peoples.
“Rebuilding in Canada means having a meaningful partnership with the Indigenous governments and, more importantly, Indigenous-led initiatives on housing, education, healthcare, and the economy,” Yakeleya said.
“It means a severe shift in the government’s thinking and mindset to look at direct funding opportunities to the Indigenous governments – and allow our people the recognition and respect to do the work that we could do in our community.”