The totem poles towering above the podiums were a subtle indication there’d be no avoiding Indigenous issues as the heads of five federal parties squared off for the English language debate Thursday at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on unceded Algonquin territory.
There were some sharp exchanges during an at-times fiery contest that covered five topics — leadership, climate change, reconciliation, affordability and pandemic recovery — over the course of two hours. But what stitched all the topics together was sustained criticism of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau found himself on the defensive several times, often trading barbs with the other leaders including one exchange with New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh during a segment on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“Mr. Trudeau, sadly, and I don’t take any pleasure in this, the calls to justice are out there and you haven’t acted on them,” Singh said. “I meant it when I said you can’t take a knee one day if you’re going to take Indigenous kids to court the next. That’s not leadership.”
“Mr. Singh, you love that line about taking Indigenous kids to court,” Trudeau shot back.
“It’s not a line. You are,” Singh interjected.
“It’s actually not true,” Trudeau continued undaunted. “We have committed to compensating those kids.”
Trudeau has promised to settle a class-action lawsuit compensating thousands of First Nations kids, most now adults, who were unnecessarily removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
However, his government is challenging two orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Federal Court — one of which, if it stands, would legally compel Ottawa to pay compensation to the victims of the on-reserve First Nations child welfare system that the tribunal concluded was and is racially discriminatory.
For the first time in the event’s history, APTN News was a broadcast partner producing the debate. APTN National News host Melissa Ridgen asked the incumbent prime minister why he deserves a third mandate.
“Canadians and Indigenous people are losing patience with the lack of results from all of this spending,” she said. “The question is why would they believe you this third term — that you would get results and you would be accountable for all that spending?”
In response, the Liberal leader stood by his record.
“One of the enemies of progressive politics, Melissa, is cynicism — is discounting the hard work that millions of people have been involved in over the past years,” Trudeau said. “When we came into office there were 105 long-term boil water advisories. We lifted 109 of them and for each of the ones that are remaining we have a project lead, a project team and an action plan. And we are going to lift those all.”
New advisories have been added even as existing ones are lifted, resulting in the difference in Trudeau’s numbers. Fifty-two long-term drinking water advisories remain in place. Trudeau insisted his government’s work shouldn’t be overlooked.
“There are tens of thousands of kids across this country, Indigenous kids who have started the school year in new schools or refurbished schools,” he continued. “We have moved forward on settling more agreements, more land claims and more partnerships than any other government over the years.”
Leaders asked why anyone should trust them
Clean drinking water, treaty rights, systemic racism, unmarked graves, dismantling the Indian Act and responding to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were all topics up for debate.
In one memorable moment a first-time voter, 18-year-old Marek McLeod of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., with eagle feather in hand, asked all the leaders why any First Nations person should believe them given the country’s history of cruelty and duplicity.
“How can I trust and respect the federal government after 150 plus years of lies and abuse to my people?” he demanded. “And as prime minister, what will you do to rebuild the trust between First Nations and the federal government?”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole opposed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and voted in Parliament against legislation requiring Ottawa to harmonize federal law with the declaration’s 46 articles. His platform promises to crack down on blockaders by passing a federal Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.
Economic reconciliation in partnership with Indigenous Peoples is central to his Indigenous platform and O’Toole promised to rebuild broken trust if his party forms government.
“What I want to do as prime minister is build that type of nation-to-nation dialogue and partnership so that the next generation has intergenerational wealth and opportunity transfer, not trauma. And building that trust will be core to me.”
Trudeau seized the opportunity to attack O’Toole after the Tory leader said it’s now time to raise the flags on all federal buildings. Trudeau ordered the flags lowered after 215 probable unmarked graves were located at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Trudeau suggested O’Toole hadn’t consulted with any Indigenous leaders before taking that stance, but O’Toole held his ground.
“As prime minister on the National Day of Reconciliation on Sept. 30, I will raise the flag with a commitment to move forward on (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) calls to action,” the Tory leader said. “Mr. Trudeau promises things, doesn’t deliver. And then when people protested him, he mocked them. That is not reconciliation.”
Blanchet bullish on systemic racism
The torrent of racist abuse nurses hurled at Atikamekw mother Joyce Echaquan as she lay dying in a Joliette, Que., hospital prompted outrage, protests and demands for reform. Her death was widely cited as an example of systemic racism, but Québec Premier Francois Legault maintained it was not.
This was despite the fact that a provincial commission of inquiry headed by retired judge Jacques Viens, in his 2019 report, found it “impossible to deny that members of First Nations and Inuit are victims of systemic discrimination in their relations with the public services that are the subject of this inquiry.”
The probe was ordered after First Nations women in Val-d’Or, Que., reported being abused by provincial police and even being subjected to starlight tours.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had this to say when Ridgen asked about systemic racism in the province.
“I recognized the existence of systemic racism in June 2020. And then what happened? It became a political tool against Québec. It became a tool to say Québec is this and that and racist and xenophobic and all of that instead of opening a discussion, trying to find solutions, consulting experts, discussing with the First Nations themselves,” he said. “The words became toxic.”
Blanchet said he remains open to discussing the issue but not in an aggressive arena “as this debate has become.”
His comments got a strong rebuttal from Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who lamented that no First Nations, Inuit or Métis leader has ever stood on that stage.
“What we are missing is those who have been in power for a very long time making space for new voices and diverse voices. I actually had to pull my jaw up, which just dropped when I heard what Mr. Blanchet said,” she said. “I invited Mr. Blanchet to get educated about systemic discrimination. I extend that invitation again. I would be happy to educate him.”
But Blanchet hit back saying the comment was a presumptuous insult. “There should be some decency in this debate,” he said after moderator Shachi Kurl declined to let him respond to Paul. Blanchet continued his criticism after the debate while speaking to reporters.
‘Reconciliation is treated like a buffet’
Paul’s criticism wasn’t limited to Blanchet. She had some strong words for Trudeau as well.
“It seems all too often that reconciliation is treated like a buffet. You can opt in for this, pick this plate but not the other one. And that applies to what we’ve seen with Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals,” she said. “You can’t on the one hand say reconciliation and then go and not allow Mi’kmaw fishers to be able to have a decent moderate living.”
The Liberal leader refused to sway, saying again those who criticize him are being cynical during another salvo with Singh.
“Mr. Trudeau may care. I think he cares,” said Singh. “But the reality is that he’s often done a lot of things for show and hasn’t backed those up with real action, and the harm is that Indigenous people continue to suffer, and that’s what I want to stop.”
“Unfortunately, the cynicism that Mr. Singh is showing on saying we did nothing is harming reconciliation and the path we’re moving forward,” Trudeau countered. “We have lots more to do, and we are doing it.”
Singh brushed the accusation off briskly when addressing reporters afterward.
“It’s a pretty ludicrous thing to say,” he said. “What’s damaging reconciliation is Mr. Trudeau looking Indigenous people in the eyes and saying I’m going to deliver clean drinking water and then breaking that promise.”
Despite the joust, no clear winner emerged — except maybe former Justice Canada minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Wilson-Raybould’s name was dropped about half a dozen times throughout the showdown. She was booted from the Liberal caucus in the wake of the SNC Lavalin scandal but won her seat in 2019 as an Independent.
She declined to run in 2021, and, in announcing the move, Wilson-Raybould said Parliament has become a regressive, hyper-partisan, “toxic and ineffective” place.
Advance polls open today with only 10 days remaining until the Sept. 20 vote.