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Federal party platforms on Indigenous human rights show deep divide | Pamela Palmater

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 @ 12:56 PM | By Pamela Palmater


Pamela Palmater %>
Pamela Palmater
After a month of campaigning, a staggered release of platforms and completion of the election debates, we have a good idea of where the main federal party leaders stand on Indigenous issues. While all of them pledged a general commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples during those debates, we heard few details about their actual plans, especially as it relates to ending genocide against Indigenous women and girls. This means that we have to search party platforms for details on how they plan to address violence against Indigenous women, systemic racism in policing and human rights in general.

A detailed review shows there is a deep divide in what the parties are offering in terms of legislative initiatives they propose to back up their commitments. In fact, one platform threatens to roll reconciliation backwards.

The most significant human rights crisis that has ever faced Canada is the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (National Inquiry) released its final report in 2019 which found Canada guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples generally, and Indigenous women and girls specifically. Yet, none of the platforms indicate that the parties accept responsibility for this crisis or present a comprehensive plan to address either the legacy of past abuses or the ongoing injustices. In fact, not all the party leaders even agree that a genocide was committed. At the heart of this divide, is each party’s commitment (or lack thereof) to the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples. This is especially evident in the legislative agendas of each party.

One of the positive things about the Liberal and NDP platforms is their stated commitment to addressing (to some extent) the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls — something lacking in the Conservative platform. The Liberal platform references the fact that they launched the National Inquiry, committed $2 billion towards addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls and developed a “Federal Pathway” document respecting the “the federal portion” of a National Action Plan. Their platform also outlines a commitment to accelerate the implementation of this pathway document and create a federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) table to co-ordinate this work. They have however, been criticized for the fact that two years after the report, there is still no consolidated national action plan to end genocide. Further, neither Indigenous governments, nor Indigenous women representatives appear to be part of the FPT table and intergovernmental work moving forward. Also of concern is the lack of a commitment to implement the 231 Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry — a glaring omission — given their previous commitments to implement the 94 Calls to Action from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The NDP platform on the other hand, commits to working with Indigenous women, families and communities to implement the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry, as well as calls for action brought forward by communities. This will include the establishment of a comprehensive plan to specifically address violence against Indigenous women, together with social supports, shelters and transitional housing. They also emphasize that Indigenous women must have equitable access to self-determination over land, childcare, health and education but don’t say how they will make this a reality. Similarly, they don’t provide any timelines with regards to a plan to address murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, or what happens to the work already done or the funding that has been committed by the Liberals. There are also some notable conflicts between the NDP’s platform and their stated positions on issues like pipelines. In fact, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh would not even answer the question of whether he would shut down the Trans Mountain Pipeline if elected. This is a serious defect in their platform, as the research shows a link between the extractive industry and violence against Indigenous women and girls, most notably the high rates of violence and exploitation from camps associated with pipelines and mining projects.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Conservative platform which fails to recognize that the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a genocide and characterizes the crisis as merely “gaps in opportunity.” Their platform does not reference the 231 Calls for Justice or a national plan to implement them. Instead, the Conservatives include a one-line commitment to develop a plan to address violence against Indigenous women and girls — not quite the same thing — especially since the Conservatives have previously blamed Indigenous men for the crisis. Recall former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt who said the crisis was due to Indigenous men not respecting women, but refused to back up his claims, later disproven by the National Inquiry. Their platform also contains commitments that would conflict with reducing violence against Indigenous women, in that it focuses on Indigenous economic development primarily through the extractive industry. Their commitment to increase oil and gas production and remove barriers for project approvals could see violence against Indigenous women increase. This, together with their focus on building relationships with private Indigenous corporations engaged in the extractive industry, versus nation-to-nation relationships with actual Indigenous governments and Indigenous women’s organizations, means that Indigenous women’s voices likely won’t be at the table to represent these grave human rights concerns.

Beyond what is laid out in their platforms, the question is, have the parties committed to a legislative agenda that supports their commitments? The Liberals promise to strengthen the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code as part of a national strategy to combat systemic racism and better respond to the rise in hate crimes. The Liberals already passed Bill C-15 which confirms the applicability of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian law and commits the federal government to its implementation. UNDRIP recognizes the rights of Indigenous women to be free from violence, take part in their communities and governments, and to be free from any form of discrimination. This will inevitably require substantive legislative amendments over time, but there is no indication of what they will prioritize moving forward. This human rights agenda, together with the Liberal government’s ban on assault rifles, the commitment to implement Joyce’s Principle and targeted legislation to address racism in health care, could work together to help protect the human rights, health, safety and well-being of Indigenous women.

The NDP platform on human rights is more fulsome than that of the Liberals. The NDP specifically commits to respect Canada’s domestic and international human rights obligations, which include ensuring human rights are protected in international trade agreements. This has long been missing from the national conversation around free trade agreements and the negative impacts they have on Indigenous rights and the safety of Indigenous women and girls. To this end, the NDP also promises to ensure that trade agreements and their national action on the climate crisis is consistent with the human rights protections for Indigenous peoples contained within UNDRIP. Yet they don’t offer any details on what legislative measures they propose to do this or at whether they intend to make legislative changes to the ratification of international trade agreements and who has a say. The NDP platform further provides that their National Action Plan on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples will be consistent with Canada’s human rights commitments, but again fails to outline a legislative path forward to make this happen. The NDP does promise to stop the federal government’s litigation against First Nations children in foster care and comply with orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and will enact legislation to protect Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare systems which include legislative guarantee of long-term, predictable funding — a major critique of the Liberal government’s Bill C-92.

It’s also important to note that the NDP is the only party specifically promising to implement all the Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry, which include eliminating all sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act — something long called for by Indigenous women and considered one of the root causes of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They also promise to ban police carding and remove mandatory minimum sentencing to address overincarceration, all important legislative measures. However, the NDP position on Trans Mountain pipeline runs directly counter to the human rights of Indigenous peoples and their platform lacks a concrete legislative agenda to address systemic racism, brutality, violence and corruption in the RCMP, both of which present continued safety risks for Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women.

The Conservative platform stands in stark contrast to the Liberal and NDP platforms when it comes to a legislative agenda that supports human rights generally and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples specifically. It is also important to look beyond what party Leader Erin O’Toole says and look directly at the positions of his caucus to get insight into what we could expect from a Conservative government. With regards to human rights, their platform includes a promise — presumably through legislation — to protect the so-called “conscience rights” of health-care professionals, which many suggest will allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions. This should come as no surprise given that the Conservative caucus voted in favour of limiting access to abortions — a critical infringement on women’s human rights. Similarly, while O’Toole says he acknowledges the climate crisis, his caucus voted against officially recognizing that climate change is real, risking the healthy, safety and human rights of those most impacted by climate change like First Nations and Inuit in the North.

O’Toole also had to walk back comments about residential schools being well-intended but still defends his call to raise the Canadian flags on Truth and Reconciliation Day (currently at half-mast on Parliament to honour Indigenous children found in unmarked graves). This is the same rhetoric from previous Conservative governments which consistently denied the genocide which occurred in residential schools and currently underpins the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The lack of a legislative agenda to implement the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry, the calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and UNDRIP is telling. Where they do promise legislation is in relation to streamlining environmental review processes to push forward major projects, create a Canadian Indigenous Opportunities Corporation to focus on extractive projects and support Indigenous Protected Areas of cultural significance so long as it does not impact “benefits” — presumably extraction of resources. The only Article of UNDRIP they commit to implement is Article 18 — the right to participate in decision-making — and will develop a consultation process for major projects. There is no mention of Article 19 and of Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent before legislative or administrative measures taken that would impact Indigenous peoples.

This legislative agenda should be considered in tandem with Conservative promises to hire more RCMP officers; increase funding to the RCMP; repeal the legislative ban on military assault rifles; and repeal human rights protections against hate speech. Every one of these legislative and policy measures will put the health, safety and human rights of Indigenous peoples — especially Indigenous women — in greater jeopardy. In this way, the Liberal and NDP platforms far surpass the Conservative platform in terms of their stated commitments to legislative measures that support the human rights of Indigenous peoples and their ability to address some of the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls. The Conservative platform threatens to roll back human rights protections, including those contained in UNDRIP. While there are valid critiques for each party platform, the Conservative platform is an outlier in terms of its vision for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, which is disproportionately focused on exploiting Indigenous lands and labour than respecting Indigenous human rights and safety.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been a practising lawyer for 23 years specializing in Indigenous and human rights law and currently holds the position of  professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She maintains her own political blog at www.pampalmater.com.

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