A deafening silence on Aboriginal issues

In the past 60 days, an estimated 33,000 Indigenous Canadians have been violently victimized. Not that the campaigns have noticed.

(Marta Iwanek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

(Marta Iwanek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

News of Jamie Prefontaine’s death, apparently by suicide, shattered Winnipeg’s Indigenous community last week. There, the 30-year-old Metis father of four was better known as Brooklyn, the stage name he adopted five years ago, before rocketing to fame with the award-winning hip-hop trio Winnipeg’s Most.

They were assailed for glorifying the criminal lifestyle. But Winnipeg’s Most also used their star power to help draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, buying headstones for Carolyn Sinclair, a 25-year-old from the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, whose body was found in a city Dumpster, and Divas Boulanger, a transgender Berens River woman, whose body was found at a highway truck stop. Prefontaine, who’d lost an aunt to murder growing up, said the issue hit “close to home.”

In much the same way, his death is affecting young men around him. Karmen Omeasoo, considered the “grandfather of Native hip-hop,” penned a moving tribute to the fallen rapper, opening up about a suicide attempt that’s left him unable to close his left hand: “I feel for all the lives we have lost to this demon—it’s time to start speaking about it daily. We can’t lose any more.”

Prefontaine’s death came days after the start of a coroner’s inquest into Nunavut’s horrific suicide rate—40 times the national average for boys aged 15 to 19. But in that 450-word Facebook post, Omeasoo—better known by his stage name, Hellnback—said more about the suicide epidemic tearing apart Indigenous communities than all the federal party leaders combined have at a major public forum in this election cycle.

Indeed, in the past seven weeks—during which there have been four leaders debates covering wide-ranging topics—the leaders have been effectively silent on the critical issues facing Indigenous people. In a typical eight-week period in Canada, more than 33,000 Indigenous people are violently victimized and 11 are murdered, more than 17 times the national average. Yet in the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate on Aug. 6, Indigenous issues earned only passing mentions. In the Globe and Mail debate on the economy, they got a mention when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau plugged his plan to boost spending on First Nations education. At this week’s Munk Debate in Toronto, they got no mention. Liberal candidate Michèle Audette, an Innu and Liberal candidate in Quebec, notes the leaders were not solely to blame: they weren’t asked the urgent questions.

Related: Scott Gilmore: A real nation would not let this happen

On the campaign trail, in a country that has lost more than 800 Indigenous women to violence since 1995, compared to two men lost to domestic terrorism, the discourse has been dominated by fears of Islamic State and a new anti-terror law—a wedge issue that’s split progressive votes.

“I don’t want to play oppression Olympics,” says Indigenous scholar Hayden King, contrasting the parties’ silence to the massive debate on the Syrian refugee crisis sparked by the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last month. “But we have Native children being taken from families, kids dying of preventable causes in northern communities, and we haven’t talked about any of it. You really have to ask: What will it take to compel Canadians to make these electoral issues?”

It’s all the more galling given the election was called just weeks after the release of the findings on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on June 2. Canada, it seemed then, was finally at a turning point, ready to acknowledge its dark past and formative role in creating a situation whereby an Indigenous child born tomorrow is expected to live seven fewer years than any other Canadian. He has a 50 per cent chance of growing up in poverty and better odds of being jailed than of graduating high school. If born on Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, he has a better chance of being infected with HIV than in some African countries.

“Canadians should be appalled,” says B.C. consultant Michelle Corfield, former vice-president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, where she oversaw economic development. “Every citizen of Canada deserves to live in a country that recognizes them as equals. If we continue to do nothing, Indigenous people will fall from Third to Fourth World living conditions.” The TRC provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meaningfully address these issues, she adds. Unless something changes in the next three weeks, she fears we’ll have wasted it entirely.

Over the weekend, author and university administrator Wab Kinew, Rwandan genocide survivor Eloge Butera, Broadbent Institute director Jonathan Sas and 19 honorary witnesses to the TRC issued a call to action, urging Canadians to “make reconciliation an election issue.” Kinew told Maclean’s he remembers NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau “immediately in front of news cameras” after the tabling of the TRC report. “When it was politically expedient to jump on the stories of my father, of our ancestors, I remember them being there.”

“At this late stage, it will certainly be difficult to insert reconciliation into the conversation,” says Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Time’s a-wasting; and the opportunity has almost passed.

“The reality is the federal government has been largely responsible for causing this harm, and the chaos that results lies in their lap. And to a certain extent, they are a bit confused—looking for direction, continuing to dither while they try to gauge the public appetite.”

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Sinclair says he always knew the federal government would be the slowest agent of change; he notes strides made by educators—who are changing school curricula in several provinces—by churches and private industry. But federal players are approaching this from a political perspective: Are there votes in it or not? “I think that’s what’s at play here. But at some point we’re going to have to have a serious conversation: The federal government can’t continue to ignore this. They’re going to have to show some leadership.”

In the meantime, Sinclair says, the public needs to recognize where it can effect change. This, he adds, “is going to be the most effective way to combat racism, which is still quite prevalent in our society.” Sinclair believes reconciliation will take hold neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street, family by family. “The reality is, it took us 150 years to get to this situation so it’s going to take us a while to get out of it. Let’s not get frustrated by lack of action in the immediate future.” Frustration, however, is what many people feel right now.

There were hopeful signs, after all, that things would be different this time around. Soon after the campaign launched, the leaders of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties addressed the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). They made significant promises: The Liberals and Greens have agreed to adopt each of the TRC’s 94 recommendations and the NDP have pledged to act on adopting them. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP have costed their reconciliation planks. The Conservatives have said they will wait for the commission’s full report, due next year, before making any commitments. The Liberals, NDP and Greens have said they would adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; all three are calling for an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women.

One of the Liberals’ first campaign promises in August was to invest $2.6 billion for on-reserve education and $500 million over three years for school infrastructure, notes Michèle Audette, a Liberal candidate and former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada; over the past 18 months, Audette, who is challenging NDP incumbent Charmaine Borg in the Montreal-area riding of Terrebonne, was part of the team that drafted the party’s Indigenous platform with Paul Martin.

The Conservatives have not released an Indigenous platform, but in the 2015 budget, they pledged to direct $200 million over five years to Indigenous education and re-announced plans to direct $500 million over six years to on-reserve schools.

The NDP, meanwhile, is planning to release more details on its Indigenous platform later in the campaign; sources suggest it will include investments to First Nations education and infrastructure.

The Idle No More movement initiated a massive push for change; and a huge number of activists have been channelling their energy to get-out-the-vote initiatives like Indigenous Rock the Vote.

Sara Mainville, chief of the Couchiching First Nation, near Rainy Lake, Ont., is among them: “If it’s the only arrow in your bonnet, use it, because voting is the only way this is going to change,” the 46-year-old lawyer tells potential voters. “The status quo is so dangerous. I don’t want my 10-year-old daughter to grow up feeling unsafe on city streets the way I did. This has to change.”

In nearby Kenora, Tania Cameron, the riding’s former NDP candidate and a key Idle No More organizer, has devoted her every free minute to helping Indigenous voters navigate the new restrictions brought in with the government’s Fair Elections Act. Cameron considers the new rules a “voter suppression tactic,” akin to “what used to be done in Mississippi.”

Indeed, many fear the new identification requirements, which insist on addresses, will disproportionately disqualify people on crowded reserves. The new rules also end the practice of vouching, which allowed chiefs and council to affirm the identify of someone lacking complete ID, which many on-reserve voters do.

“The relationship between the current government and Indigenous people is unnecessarily adversarial,” says AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde in an interview. “They spent [$110] million this year fighting court battles over Aboriginal rights and title. If we continue this approach, we’ll continue to lose generations of people; we’ll continue to lose languages and potential and opportunity.

“Party leaders need to pay attention to our issues and priorities; they are Canada’s issues and priorities,” Bellegarde tells Maclean’s. “If we win, Canada as a country will win.”

In Nunavut this week, the coroner agreed with the inquest jury that suicide should be declared a public health emergency. The inquest had heard from families of the 45 people who killed themselves in the territory in 2013, a torrent of tragedy that sparked the inquest. Rex Uttak, who turned 11 just weeks before he hanged himself on Aug. 10, 2013, was the youngest.

He was a happy boy who loved to laugh; before he died, his family had been living with as many as 24 relatives in his grandmother Bernadette’s four-bedroom home. They’d been waitlisted for social housing.

Rex was not the first in his family to succumb to suicide: his older brother Bernie had killed himself, as had an aunt. And he was grieving the murder of his older sister. “I’m lifeless,” his grandmother Bernadette testified in Inuktitut. “You think: ‘What did I do wrong?’ ”

It’s hard to imagine a topic more urgent in Canada than this one. Twenty-seven Nunavummiut have already died by suicide this year. Will this be a topic the leaders grapple with and debate in detail in the final leaders debate in Montreal this week? Given their interests and talking points so far, it seems very unlikely.

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