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Election 2015

Where Do Major Parties Stand on Reconciliation?

Three months after commission's report, aboriginal issues take campaign backseat.

Katie Hyslop 23 Sep

Katie Hyslop reports on the 2015 federal election for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

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It's been over three months since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released the core findings of its report on the impact of residential schools, forcing Canadians -- including leaders of major political parties -- to concede our federal government had engaged in decades of "cultural genocide" to eradicate indigenous cultures and communities.

The report included 94 recommendations "to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation."

Many of the recommendations involve action from the federal government, including fully funding on-reserve education, providing sustainable funding for new and existing aboriginal healing centres, reducing the number of indigenous people in our prisons, and adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to name just a few.

When the recommendations were released in early June, both Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair stood up in the House of Commons to declare their parties accepted and would work to implement the recommendations. Green Party leader Elizabeth May issued a press release vowing the same.

Conservative leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- who did not concede government had committed cultural genocide -- said his government was awaiting the commission's full report, due early next year, before making any commitments.

The commission and its findings have taken a back seat in recent weeks as major party leaders remain focused on the economy and immigration.

That's a problem because, according to Reconciliation Canada's executive director Karen Joseph, reconciliation is not just one of many important election issues, it's the election issue Canadians need to be talking about.

"Especially given the fact that we've got Canada's 150th anniversary coming up, and we have an opportunity to really set the stage for a vibrant history moving forward," she said.

On Aug. 27 Reconciliation Canada sent letters to the Greens, NDP, Liberals, Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois asking them what steps their parties will take to ensure Canadians understand the ongoing repercussions of residential schools, as well as achieve reconciliation and economic equality between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

While the letter doesn't mention the commission report, it summarizes its recommendations aimed at the federal government. None of the parties have responded yet, though they've all said they would by Reconciliation Canada's Sept. 28 deadline.

The Tyee wasn't content to wait that long, however, and spoke with former NDP and Liberal aboriginal affairs critics Niki Ashton and Carolyn Bennett to find out where major parties with a chance to form government stood. The Tyee also reached out to former aboriginal affairs minister and current Conservative candidate Bernard Valcourt, but emails to the Conservative media team went unanswered.

Missing women inquiry pledges

The Liberals, NDP and Greens have pledged to implement the report's recommendations, and all three parties have specifically promised an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls -- number 41 on the TRC's recommendations list.

The Conservatives have not made any aboriginal issue campaign promises yet, but the government's latest Action Plan includes several costed pledges like $200 million over five years for First Nations education, $500 million for new and renovated school buildings, and $2 million a year for two years for mental health services.

One of the Liberals first campaign promises in August was a pledge to invest 2.6 billion over four years for on-reserve First Nations education, and $500 million over three years into education infrastructure like school buildings.

Assembly of First Nations' Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde praised the education plan as "a substantive plan for action," and called on all parties to announce their First Nations education promises.

This month they added to those promises, pledging "substantial new funding" to help communities keep their indigenous language alive, another $50 million in post-secondary funding for indigenous students, lifting the government's two per cent cap on First Nations spending increases, funding for on-reserve child and family services that's equitable to off-reserve service funding, and establishing a Federal Reconciliation Framework with indigenous people to fulfill reconciliation aims -- all recommendations outlined by the TRC.

But the Liberal promises are short on details and don't always come with price tags. Neither the Liberals or New Democrats have produced a costed reconciliation plank, and Ashton and Bennett wouldn't go into details about parts of their platform yet to come. Here's what they could say about their TRC pledges.

Liberals invoke Kelowna Accord

For the Liberals, implementation means establishing a Kelowna Accord-type process. Started under then-prime minister Paul Martin in 2004, the Kelowna Accord was the result of 18 months of negotiations between the federal, provincial and territorial governments and indigenous organizations to "close the gap" between indigenous and non-indigenous health, education and housing, as well as settling land claims and achieving indigenous self-government.

But while the Liberals planned to spend $5 billion over five years on implementation, government fell before they could put it in the budget. The subsequent Conservative government dedicated just $450 million over two years to the accord.

Bennett, who is campaigning to keep her seat in the Toronto St. Paul's riding, said because the accord is just 10 years old, consultations probably won't take another 18 months.

"The reason we liked that process is that it included everybody in what would be realistic goals, and a budget that would be required to achieve it," she said. "We still need a process to sort out the priorities, realistic timelines and budgets."

One of the many things the accord would have changed is removing the two per cent cap on First Nations funding increases. Paul Martin introduced it when he was finance minister in 1995, and the cap remains on the books today.

"There's no question there are regrets that that [cap] stayed in place too long," said Bennett.

NDP costed plan 'coming soon'

There are 12 indigenous-related posts in the "The Plan" section of the Liberal website, though several of them overlap in content.

As of right now the "Tom's Plan" section of the NDP website that discusses the party's platform makes no mention of indigenous people or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Niki Ashton, NDP candidate in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Manitoba, says a costed plan outlining indigenous-related promises is coming soon, though she admits they won't know the full cost of implementing the TRC's recommendations until the full report comes out in six months.

Ashton, the incumbent in a riding that includes 33 different First Nations, maintains party leader Tom Mulcair has been clear about his support for the recommendations from the beginning.

"We said that we would take immediate steps to implement the recommendations if elected," she said. One of the first steps would be establishing the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women within 100 days of taking office -- the Liberals say an inquiry would launch "immediately" if they formed government.

Back in July, the NDP released "A new era: Nation-to-Nation" -- a media backgrounder with seven commitments their party would fulfill to improve the lives of indigenous people should they form government.

Commitments included some TRC recommendations like establishing a national inquiry and creating a new treaty process to settle outstanding land claims, while others like improving reserve infrastructure and implementing tougher environmental legislation weren't named in the TRC's report.

For the recommendations that do not directly involve the federal government, Ashton said the NDP will work with other levels of government and non-government organizations like churches to implement them.

"It's not an overnight process," she added, "a number of the recommendations are quite extensive."

Reconciliation report card?

This isn't the first time a major report on indigenous people has been produced with recommendations for change. Almost 20 years ago the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report was released by the federal government, with recommendations they promised would reduce the quality of life gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people by 50 per cent by 2015.

In 2005 the Assembly of First Nations gave the federal government an "F" for failing to adequately implement most of the recommendations. This time the national body is asking whoever forms government next to produce a TRC implementation report card -- in collaboration with the AFN -- by the end of 2017.

While neither Ashton nor Bennett would commit to the AFN's report card, both did say setting benchmarks, as well as measuring progress -- and failure -- was key to ensuring this report doesn't collect dust while the status quo continues.

In the meantime, Reconciliation Canada's Joseph will be keeping an eye on all parties to see which leaders take reconciliation seriously.

"Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal issue, it's a Canadian issue," she said. "It's going to take all of us to move us forward together."  [Tyee]

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