Hundreds of First Nations chiefs booed Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Thursday when the opposition leader told them they will have to wait until his platform is released to see how he differs from former prime minister Stephen Harper.
The Assembly of First Nations chiefs were meeting in a downtown Ottawa hotel. During a question-and-answer session with the opposition leader, chiefs asked Scheer how he’s different from Harper, with one asking him to name one policy stance he holds that’s different from Harper’s and another asking how he plans to rebuild trust with First Nations people that “Harper lost.”
Chief Elaine Johnston of Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario told Scheer that First Nations people have not had positive relationships with Conservative governments, including the new one in Ontario.
“My concern here is when you’re talking about the spirit of reconciliation, what are you going to do in that spirit of reconciliation that is going to be different than your predecessors in the Conservative government? I need to hear that because I’m not seeing it. The rhetoric is there, but there has not been positive action,” she said.
Jessica Jacobs, a councillor for Ta’an Kwach’an Council in Yukon, asked Scheer flatly how he feels about Indigenous people and issues and how he plans to try to fix the relationship between the Conservative party and Indigenous people in Canada.
“First two questions were kind of similar … the differentiation between myself and the previous Conservative government specifically when it comes to policy. So on that I am going to have to ask you to have a little bit of patience for when our platform gets released,” Scheer said, and was hit by the wave of boos.
Scheer quickly added that Indigenous people will see change. In the last election the Conservatives did not win support from a large majority of First Nations communities and people and he wants to fix that, he said. “Part of that is coming to these kinds of meetings, in a respectful way.”
But Scheer did suggest his party would seek to protect and promote Indigenous languages, saying he and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde have already talked about it.
That will be part of a whole segment of the Conservative party’s election platform, said Scheer, which he vowed would not be crafted only by his inner circle.
“I’d be happy to come back at a future time and explain more detailed aspects of what we’ll be campaigning on, but it will be a different approach to the Liberals. It will be an approach that’s based on getting the relationship right, but also getting results,” he said. “You talked about what we’re going to do to overcome the relationship challenges that we may have had in the past. It is frustrating for me as a Conservative when I think about the great things that we did do in terms of policies.”
He said it was a Conservative government that recognized Indigenous rights and extended the vote to First Nations people and a Conservative government appointed the first First Nations senator. He also raised Harper’s apology in the House of Commons that acknowledged the legacy of the residential-school system.
“So we have these legacies but clearly when you don’t have the relationship right … often tangible results get overlooked or at least get viewed in a different way.”
Scheer said the big hurdle for the Conservative party is to get that relationship back on track so the party and Indigenous people can work more closely together “in that spirit of trust.”
“I view Indigenous Canadians as an integral part of our society, proud of their contribution to Canadian history, great deal of respect for all they did pre-Confederation, the way that they have been partners in building this society we have, and I’m very proud to represent a dozen First Nations communities in my own riding,” the Saskatchewan MP said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May also addressed chiefs Thursday.
Singh raised NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill aimed at ensuring Canada’s laws are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling it a powerful and transformative piece of legislation.
Singh said that while the last three years seem like a “ray of hope” given the 10 years before, half steps are not enough and paternalism toward Indigenous people needs to be abandoned.
May said she will advocate for Indigenous people in the next election, saying that Green party candidates want to tell the truth about what’s happening to Indigenous people.
“I just want you to know I’m here in full solidarity.”
Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press