NOTE: I was asked to submit a writing sample recently, and given the topic “Where do the 3 parties stand on aboriginal issues and how do we get to them to take this more seriously. This piece was the result. As this is a topic I’m not as well versed in as others, any feedback would be even more welcome than it usually is.
It is fair to judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. Last year a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed half of Aboriginal children live in poverty, which is almost triple the rate of non-Aboriginal children. Aboriginal people in Canada are clearly among our most vulnerable. Examining where Canada’s three main federal parties stand on Aboriginal issues is fair. Examining how we can make them take those issues more seriously is more than fair, it is a moral obligation.
Conservative policy seems guided by Mr. Harper’s quote in a letter to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples during the 2006 election, “The Conservative Party of Canada does not believe that the lives of Aboriginal Canadians will improve simply by throwing money at them.” True to their word they haven’t. Instead they have introduced initiatives to extend rights to Aboriginal Canadians in line with those other Canadians enjoy, without relying heavily on increased funding. Examples include the extension of the Canadian Human Rights Act to Aboriginals on reserves, a bill on matrimonial property rights, and the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. That Aboriginals may not want to be treated the same as Harper’s Conservatives treat other Canadians is and argument for another time
In contrast, the Official Opposition NDP take a broader view of Aboriginal issues. Opposition Leader Thomas Muclair believes a cabinet committee is necessary to ensure all government decisions respect obligations and court rulings, as well as Aboriginal treaty rights. He engaged in a “listening tour” of Aboriginal communities last summer, and it is believed this is a personal issue for Mr. Muclair, saying it would be a “top priority” were he elected Prime Minister. Of course as Opposition Leader Mr. Muclair’s top priority remains actually being elected Prime Minister first.
Arguably the best indication of Liberal party policy is their founding of the Aboriginal Peoples Commission in 1990. They were the first federal party to provide Aboriginals the opportunity to represent themselves within the party. Their summary of Liberal policy on Aboriginal issues last year identified education and housing as the top two issues respectively. Statements on both recognize that unique challenges faced by Aboriginal communities are an obstacle to improving both. Despite the credible source, this could also be seen as recognizing that water is in fact wet.
The merit of these approaches to Aboriginal issues aside, no party highlights them as they do the economy, the environment, or other issues. If the question is “Why Not?” the answer is just as simple. Aboriginal issues are not a high priority for the majority of Canadians. For parties to take these issues more seriously making them more important to Canadian voters is key.
Precedence for increasing an issue’s importance can be found in the environmental movement. Increased education on how environmental issues affect all of us in every area from our health to our wallets began raising the issue’s profile. Incorporating environmental issues into different parts of the education curriculum ensures it will remain a priority for future generations of voters.
A similar approach could raise the profile of Aboriginal issues as well. Show Canadians addressing the poverty which afflicts Aboriginal communities can reduce the disproportionate number of Aboriginals who are incarcerated. Show them developing better relations with Aboriginal communities can allow us to better develop our natural resources. Ensure our education system doesn’t only talk about Aboriginal issues in history class and you can ensure future voters will see Aboriginal issues as everyone’s.
The only way our federal parties take Aboriginal issues more seriously is if all Canadians do first. Any issue important to enough of the electorate will be important to those seeking to govern. It’s perhaps the only facet of Aboriginal issues which has a relatively straightforward solution.