Election 2015: Candidates debate First Nations issues

Four out of five candidates vying for the Kootenay-Columbia riding debated First Nations issues at the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

The federal candidates held the first debate in Cranbrook on First Nations issues on Wednesday night. Pictured above

The federal candidates held the first debate in Cranbrook on First Nations issues on Wednesday night. Pictured above

First Nations issues came to the forefront of the federal election on Wednesday night at the Ktunaxa Nation Council, which featured a debate between four of five federal party candidates.

Bill Green (Green Party), Wayne Stetski (NDP), Don Johnston (Liberal Party) and incumbent David Wilks (Conservative Party) spent two hours discussing Aboriginal issues in a forum moderated by Joe Pierre. Libertarian candidate Christina Yahn was unable to attend.

The format consisted of six issues that the candidates were alerted to beforehand, before opening up the floor to a Q&A period. Each candidate was also allotted a closing statement.

The six issues at the centre of the forum included: land claims and resource revenue sharing, quality of life gap, the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, missing and murdered aboriginal women, pace and progress of treaties and housing, education and health care.

Topics from the floor—asked by First Nations members of the audience—issues included childcare for single parents, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need for action on environmental issues, increasing funding for First Nations students studying on-reserve to equal that of funding for students at schools off-reserve and more.

Dr. Joyce Green, the organizer of the event (no relation to Green Party candidate Bill Green), said she was thankful for the candidates for coming out.

“I think it is very important that each of them begins to think about Indigenous issues. I don’t believe our political parties—certainly not our governments—think enough about Aboriginal issues. I don’t think non-Indigenous Canadians, or local people, think enough about Aboriginal issues, and this event helps,” she said.

“We heard very important questions, we heard some really good answers, and we heard some answers that showed that people have much work to do to understand this issue.

“This is all helpful in a democracy, that our politicians learn to think deeply about things that make them uncomfortable or that may not be popular in their parties, because Ktunaxa and Metis are not considered by the federal government, nor the provincial governments, so I’m at least happy, that in an election, we can get some issues on the public record.”

Common themes of the night from all parties included allowing First Nations the right to govern themselves, importance of treaties and resource-sharing agreements, and infrastructure concerns on First Nations territory.

There were, obviously, a few differences in policy between the four parties—namely on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The Liberal, NDP and Green parties supported the creation of a national inquiry if elected, while the Conservative Party supports moving forward on a report (Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women—A National Operational Overview) that was released last year.

Wilks referenced his service as an RCMP officer and his long-term recovery from addiction.

“It’s very telling what the problem is,” Wilks said, urging people to read the report.

Both Wilks and Johnston, who has worked with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, both noted the importance of educating senior levels of government bureaucracy on issues on the ground.

Green, who serves as the director of the Canadian Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission in the Columbia-Kootenay region, hit on themes of reconciliation throughout the evening.

“What I take away from this is that there’s huge strong interest in First Nations issues, in reconciliation, not only within the Ktunaxa Nation, but other First Nations and also the non-native community,” Green said.

“Reconciliation is an issue we need to be speaking about across the riding, and indeed across country, but all we can control is the discussions within this riding.”

Don Johnston brought up the Kelowna Accord, an agreement that aimed to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs.

If elected, the Liberal Party would seek to revisit or recreate a similar kind of guiding document.

“The Liberal Party had managed, working with First Nations from across this country, to create a document called the Kelowna Accord in 2005. That was a new way forward that looked at government-to-government respectful, honest and clear conversations and had an action plan that everyone was on board with,” Johnston said.  “When the Paul Martin government was defeated, nothing has come in to replace it.”

Stetski leaned on his time as the regional director with the Ministry of Environment as well as his time in office as the Mayor of Cranbrook to highlight his relationship with the Ktunaxa in the region, noting that actions speak louder than words.

“To me, I started my schooling years going to a residential school in the Northwest Territories and all my friends were Inuit,” Stetski said. “All through my lifetime, I’ve considered First Nations people my friends and my neighbours and you want a Member of Parliament—in my mind—who considers you a friend and neighbour because we care about each other.”

The next debate featuring the majority of the candidates in the federal election is the Junior Chamber International (JCI) Kootenay forum which is at the Key City Theatre on Oct. 6, starting at 7 p.m.