Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh addressed several issues of relevance to the Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island and British Columbia during a visit to Duncan as he kicked off a nation-wide tour on Thursday, July 8.
Singh spoke about the next steps in the process of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people, old-growth logging and the ongoing opioid crisis, as well as the potential for a federal election in the near future.
Reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people has been an important topic for many years, but has come to the forefront in recent weeks following the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with more likely to come.
“Canadians are reeling from the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves, which has been horrible,” Singh said. “The silver lining is that people are saying it’s not enough to just mourn and be grieving. We have to have action. We need concrete steps.”
The first step, Singh said, is to drop the Liberal government’s appeal of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering Ottawa to pay $40,000 each to approximately 50,000 First Nations children who were separated from their families by the child welfare system.
“We are calling on Justin Trudeau to stop taking Indigenous kids to court,” Singh said. “That’s part of the same legacy of discrimination. That would be one concrete step.”
Singh said he also wants to see strong commitments from the government to work with Indigenous communities in the search for graves, and funding to help those communities deal with the trauma. The government must also follow up on its vow to implement all of the 94 calls to action that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made in 2015.
“Six years ago, the Liberal government promised to put them all into action, and they’ve only done a fraction of that,” he said.
Thursday also saw NDP MPs Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Charlie Angus make the call for a special prosecutor to investigate the harm done by residential schools and other institutions, which Singh supported.
“I think this is a powerful step forward in addition to the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action,” he said. “This is accountability. There are people that are responnsible for institutions that resulted in the killing of Indigenous children.
“For people that went to school at an elementary school here in the Cowichan Valley or anywhere in B.C. or in Ontario or Quebec, there are no grave sites at schools. And it is not a coincidence that there are grave sites at residential institutions; they were designed to kill kids. They were not designed to raise them or to teach them, they were designed to strip them of their identity, their language, their culture, and their lives. And that’s something that demands additional steps of accountability. And appointing a special prosecutor to have that accountability is a positive step forward.”
Singh also touched on the importance of including First Nations in addressing forestry management, which has become a hot-button issue for Premier John Horgan’s provincial NDP government as protesters have gathered in the Port Renfrew area to call for the end of old-growth logging across the province.
“There is incredible majesty and environmental beauty to the forests that I have experienced and understand how special and important they are,” Singh said, acknowledging the importance of protecting forests and lowering emissions to fight the climate crisis while at the same time keeping and creating jobs.
Horgan has faced criticism for failing to act on the recommendations of the 2020 Old Growth Panel Report, something he promised to do in the run-up to the last provincial election, but Singh noted that the current government has done more to protect then environment than the previous regime did.
“The B.C. NDP government has protected land that was not protected by the BC Liberals,” Singh said. “There is still more work to be done, and that will continue.”
With regard to the opioid crisis, Singh put it in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we’ve realized in the pandemic is that other crises haven’t gone away,” he said. “While this has been happening, the opioid crisis has claimed more lives.”
The NDP has called for two things to address the opioid crisis: for the government to declare a national public health emergency, and for the country to take a new approach to illegal drug use. Instead of using the criminal justice system, Singh would like to see an approach based on compassion and rehabilitation.
“We want it approached not as a criminal justice problem, but as a healthcare problem,” he said.
With rumblings of a federal election this year, possibly in the coming weeks, Singh noted that there doesn’t need to be an election until 2023, and while the Liberals are framing an election as the only option, the government’s focus should be on vaccinations and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t want to jeopardize all the sacrifice that has been made,” he said. “Priority No. 1 should be fighting the pandemic. The only reason they want an election is to gain power.”
The NDP has done a lot to help Canadians get through the pandemic, Singh said. His party fought to bring in CERB, then fought to double it to $2,000 per month. They also advocated for support for students, paid sick leave, and raising the wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent.
“Conservatives can’t point to a single victory. Despite being the official opposition, they’ve got not a single thing they can point to that they fought for or pushed for to make people’s lives better. It was New Democrats that drove all the positive changes that improved access to health for people.”
If an election is called, the NDP will be prepared, Singh said.
“We’ll be ready to fight an election. We just think it’s not the right thing to do.”