The issue of reconciliation with First Nations people is on the radar of most of the political parties as the fall federal election continues.
In recent interviews with The Free Press, the four main candidates for Kootenay-Columbia discussed his respective party’s policy on the implementation of the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
In June, the TRC – a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement whose mandate is to inform Canadians about what happened at the residential schools – presented a report to government indicating the findings of a six-year investigation into the abuses that took place over the course of about 150 years. The last school closed in 1996.
Justice Murray Sinclair, Ojibway-Canadian judge and chair of the TRC, spoke in Ottawa on June 2, calling what happened at the residential schools a “cultural genocide”.
Part of the recommendations is an inquiry into the more than 1,000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls from 1980 to 2012.
The four candidates running in Kootenay-Columbia offered their thoughts on the recommendations for an inquiry. Conservative candidate and incumbent MP David Wilks said that whatever the public may think, investigations into such cases are ongoing and in the jurisdiction of the RCMP.
“There have been so many inquiries done already. When we talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women – this is a sad story in every case – in every case. There isn’t one that isn’t. But, a lot of them, as brought out by the RCMP, are solved. They do solve a lot of them, and they are able to investigate them and they are able to bring it to conclusion.”
Yes, there are still cases that remain unsolved, and despite what the public might think, the RCMP continues to work on solving them, Wilks said.
Wilks, who served as an RCMP officer for six years in Golden, said the way he looks at it is, “the RCMP and other police forces investigate every missing person” and that the issue shouldn’t be looked at as solely an Aboriginal issue.
“Let’s broaden it – missing and murdered people. The problem is that there are some that are just very, very difficult to solve,” he said. “I don’t think when it comes to missing and murdered Aboriginal peoples that it’s fair for the government of the day – whether it’s us, the Liberals the NDP or the Greens – to say ‘what are you going to do about it?’ Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do about people that murder people. I don’t know what I’m going to do about that, because some of them you’re going to solve, and some of them you’re not going to solve. That’s the criminal element.”
As far as the RCMP’s involvement into the inquiry goes, Green Party candidate Bill Green said he thinks part of the answer to moving forward on the issue of reconciliation is better funding for the RCMP, which he said is in need of more resources.
“The government has cut resources to the RCMP. Apart from the security intelligence functions of the RCMP, they need more resources. But, clearly, there has to be a systemic overhaul with the RCMP and it’s not so much a criticism as it is a ‘let’s find a way forward’ for the RCMP to become responsive to real threats of security – to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal women in particular – in many parts of Canada.”
In other words, the Green Party believes in reconciliation and wants to work with the First Nations, and having worked with Ktunaxa Nation Council Green said the issue is “very important” to him.
“I think it’s absolutely about moving forward together, but it’s about reinventing Canada as a country that’s a partnership with First Nations,” he said, adding it’s about working together.
“First Nations are universally saying there has to be a Royal Commission into the missing and murdered aboriginal women, but [you have to be] willing to engage with First Nations at that level – which is how are we going to find joint-submissions to this – and that’s one of the reasons why I think we have to change the government.”
NDP candidate Wayne Stetski said he also believes in reconciliation, and said there’s another step to take.
“I truly believe that treaties will move all of us forward, together, I really do. So I’m not afraid of treaties,” he said. “Absolutely, reconciliation is important. And I think there’s a better future in British Columbia with treaties.”
Having spent a couple of his younger years in a residential school in the North West Territories, Stetski said that, even as a child, he noticed a difference between the way the priests and nuns treated him and his brother – the only two Caucasians children in the school – compared to how the Inuit children were treated, adding said that might have been where his interest in Aboriginal rights began.
“We’re all just people, in the end, and that’s how I felt in kindergarten and Grade 1, you know? All my friends were Inuit, so I really have never felt differences, I guess, between races and cultures.”
Like Green, Stetski has worked with the Ktunaxa Nation Council. as the mayor of Cranbrook, where he sat on the Treaty Negotiation Committee representing municipalities with the Ktunaxa, the federal and provincial governments.
“I really do believe in reconciliation, personally,” he said. “What [federal NDP leader] Tom Mulcair has said is basically we’ve got to start over with a new model. He said he’s going to set up a new committee structure with the prime minister as part of that to make sure that the decisions that the federal government [makes] around different things consider
First Nations and their impacts in terms of what we’re doing.”
Stetski said the NDP also support a national inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the federal government would not do that,” he said.
Liberal candidate Don Johnston, like two of his running mates, worked with the Aboriginal community when he was with Indian Affairs.
The Liberal Party, he said, is committed to implementing the recommendations by the TRC, but is also committed to working closely with First Nations leaderships.
“With the leaders of First Nations as equals at the table to resolve these conflicts, but also to have those conversations with the provinces, too.”
Johnston said his party will recognize the rights Aboriginal people have, “that have clearly been recognized by the Supreme Court and clearly recognized in the constitution”.
But moving forward isn’t what the Conservatives are doing, he said.
“There was a lot of hope after they made the apology for the
residential schools, that maybe there would be change.”
But then, during the TRC report in Ottawa in June when Sinclair made a plea for an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous woman, Bernard Valcourt, minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, remained the only person seated as the audience erupted in a standing ovation.
“He failed himself, and he failed Canadians,” Johnston said.
If Canadians take a hard look at where Aboriginal children are today, they will see the disadvantages those children face, he said.
“And anybody that sits in front of you and tells you that Aboriginal children born on reserves in Canada right now have the same likelihood of success as you, they’re either stupid or they’re Conservatives,” he said, adding he made that joke intentionally. “There’s lots of smart Conservatives, but the reality is, we’ve got issues that we’ve run from for so long, we can’t run from them anymore. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has focused that so we can finally understand it.”