Kootenay-Columbia candidates debate First Nations issues on Sept. 23. From left: Bill Green (Green Party)

Election 2015: Candidates discuss First Nations issues

Candidates from the Kootenay-Columbia riding met in late-September to debate First Nations issues.

As the Oct. 19 Election Day draws closer, candidates are being pressed on issues that concern Canadians and partaking in public forums, attempting to address those issues.

Last week, four candidates from Kootenay-Columbia gathered at the Ktunaxa Nation Gymnasium in Cranbrook for an all-candidates debate tackling topics that affect First Nations.

Green Party candidate Bill Green, Liberal candidate Don Johnston, NDP candidate Wayne Stetski and Conservative candidate and incumbent MP David Wilks were in attendance at the Sept. 23 event.

Missing was Libertarian candidate Christina Yahn. (Yahn has since dropped out of the election race).

One question asked candidates how their respective parties planned on dealing with the quality of life gap of native to non-native citizens.

Green said part of his party’s platform is building strong First Nations and Indigenous communities, saying levels of government need to get out of the way and allow for self-governing to take place.

“We need to provide the resources through resource revenue sharing and other ways and get out of the way,” he said to the roughly 100 people in attendance.

“We need, as non-native governments, to recognize First Nations’ jurisdictions, to make changes that your communities want and, of course, there has to be resources and funding.”

Resources and funding, he said, come in two ways, the first being from resource revenue sharing.

“I think that will and should become the major source of untied revenues that are fully under the control of First Nations governments.”

The other part is to continue with transfer payments to First Nations the same as there are to every other levels of government in Canada, he said.

“But those should be untied; transfers given for First Nations to decide where they need to put it,” he said, adding First Nations know best what their priorities are.

“We recognize that there’s a tremendous gap right now in terms of housing, health care, water supply and education in particular, so on the housing, health care and water supply,

the Green Party, our budget, have allocated an additional $800 million per year to address those priorities.”

Wilks said the quality of life gap within First Nations is an issue that’s existed for a long time.

“I believe some of the things that have been moving forward in the near future has been First Nations land management, self-government, as well as other opportunities for First Nations,” he said, adding he is familiar with land management programs as he sat on the Aboriginal Affairs and Growth and Development committee for two years where he learned a lot about the topic.

Governments need to continue to move forward, he said.

“Whether that’s through First Nations land management and/or self-government, there are some First Nations in British Columbia that are [self-governed] and that works very well. I believe that’s the way forward – self-government is the way forward.”

Wilks said he agreed with Green on that point, saying, “Both federal and provincial governments need to get out of the way and allow it to move forward.”

Johnston said he agreed with the other candidates about the need to recognize the roles and responsibilities of the First Nations governments already in place.

Johnston, who worked for Indian and Northern Affairs in the 1990s, said he was tasked at that time to do a training program with bureaucrats who worked with Indian and Northern Affairs.

“Rather than invite them to come to speak in a hall at a hotel near the head office, we took them out to First Nations,” he said. “We bussed 250 bureaucrats over a 10-week period to go and be taught what was actually happening in those communities and they had no idea.”

More than 20 years later, “and we’re still struggling with the issue of people understanding that First Nations are governments and are bringing services to people”.

The challenge is changing peoples’ mindsets, he said, adding words a national chief once said still rang true to him: “This is not a government issue; it’s not a government-to-government issue; it’s a Canadian issue, and it’s an issue that if we’re going to see change, all Canadians need to take responsibility individually and that has to manifest itself in your behaviour, your understanding, and you helping other people to understand,” he said.

“Part of this is educating Canadians about the realities that we have now, and that those realities should not be acceptable to Canadians.”

Stetski said the United Nations has identified that Aboriginal health care; education, water, women’s rights and housing are issues right across Canada and around the world.

He said the government needs to make sure “there is adequate funding provided to First Nations, that there’s adequate opportunity to implement and to build within their communities and basically get out of the way.”

The problem to date, he said, is the restrictions under the Indian Act, which makes it “almost impossible to move forward”.

The NDP will address the education deficit that has left 74 per cent of First Nations schools in Canada in need of major repairs, he said.

“We need to make sure there’s adequate funding where there’s adequate opportunity for First Nations to engage in business, to raise money, but we also need to give them the opportunity to succeed,” he said. “That’s the way of the future, whether it’s inside treaties or outside treaties.”

The next opportunities voters have to hear from the candidates will be at the the Elk Valley – Sparwood Chamber of Commerce forum, that takes place at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 5 at the Causeway Bay Hotel, 102 Red Cedar Drive.