Conservative snub of First Nations gathering a sign of campaigning to come?

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Justice Murray Sinclair, and Governor General David Johnston attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa June 3, 2015. REUTERS/Blair Gable

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promises a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says he would repeal anti-terror legislation. Elizabeth May says Greens will press for all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises nothing. The Conservative leader declined the invitation to speak to the summer gathering of the Assembly of First Nations this week, as did his Indian Affairs minister, Bernard Valcourt.

And that speaks volumes to some.

“I wish he was here,” says AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“I think it’s only appropriate that the prime minister of Canada take the time to come and address the chiefs in assembly directly. We’ve got to work collectively together, we’ve got to communicate. We know we’re not going to agree on every issue but let’s at least have a communication and dialogue process that’s respectful.”

But there’s nothing surprising about the Conservative snub, says Matt James, an associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University.

“Harper’s longstanding approach has been to avoid any kind of forum where he might face criticism or even moderately intelligent questioning,” James tells Yahoo Canada News.

Indigenous leaders shouldn’t feel alone – Harper avoids the national press and even provincial premiers, he says.

“But of course, his conspicuously awful record on relations with First Nations would make him particularly loath to avoid an AFN gathering in the run-up to an election, a time in which the Conservative government will be even more tightly controlled and scripted than usual, if that’s possible,” James says.

The Conservatives rise to power almost a decade ago was met with great trepidation among First Nations leaders. Born of the far-right Reform Party, many expected the worst.

Yet it was Harper who apologized for the Indian residential school system.

It was his Conservative government that eventually endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Harper named the first Innu ever to cabinet and his Conservative government revised the Canadian Human Rights Act to cover people living on reserves.

But overall the Conservative record on First Nations relations is a poor one, James says.

“Harper was mentored by Tom Flanagan and the so-called ‘Calgary School,’ whose position has always been that First Nations should be induced by government to assimilate and that notions of treaties, self-determination, and so forth are wrong-headed, dangerous, and to be ignored whenever possible,” he says.

“He doesn’t need them to win and he knows it. Indeed, being seen as reluctant or opposed to First Nation concerns probably helps the Harper brand among hard-core right-wing party loyalists.”

The Conservative no-show follows Harper’s loud silence on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released last month.

Pam Palmater, a lawyer and associate professor in Ryerson University’s department of politics and public administration, calls the Conservative approach “shocking.”

The crisis among Canada’s First Nations has captured global attention, says Palmater, also the university’s chair in Indigenous governance.

“Yet, despite all this, Harper’s Conservatives refuse to talk to First Nations,” she tells Yahoo Canada News from Geneva, where she appeared before the United Nations to discuss the federal government’s performance.

“They haven’t hidden their disdain for First Nations, nor have they hidden the fact that we don’t matter in this election.”

Bellegarde insists the AFN is non-partisan, despite very public calls from some chiefs at the meeting this week to unseat the Tories.

“We have to work with whoever gets elected into office,” he says.

The AFN and others are making unprecedented effort to mobilize the Aboriginal vote for the fixed Oct. 19 federal election.

Bellegarde points out that First Nations weren’t given the right to vote until 1961. Since then, many members of the community have not bothered to cast ballots.

“They didn’t feel part of the system, there were systemic barriers, even access to polling stations,” Bellegarde says.

“I think because the numbers have been low people really weren’t concerned about our issues.”

Over the coming months there will be all effort to change that, he says.

“Our issues are important and our people matter and our vote will matter this time around.”