Federal candidates make pitches to B.C. First Nations at AFN meeting

Several federal election candidates delivered their pitches to B.C. First Nations leadership at a meeting in Musqueam on Thursday, speaking about their commitments to issues like climate change, Indigenous rights and title and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Elected leadership and delegates from 58 First Nations at the B.C. Assembly of First Nations' annual general assembly listened to what they can expect from the Green, Liberal and New Democratic parties if elected. 

Among the seven candidates who spoke, five were First Nations from communities across the province. 

Despite running for different political parties, the speakers' tone was cordial. Two of the seven candidates who spoke are running against each other in the same riding. 

"I'm honoured to sit with some really stellar individuals in spite of the fact we might not share the same worldview," said Joan Phillip, New Democratic Party candidate for the Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola riding.

"I hold you up. I thank you for taking this bold step in wanting to represent us."

Independent candidates Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott were also in attendance and spoke about what they'll bring to Ottawa if re-elected and where they see First Nations advocacy being crucial in the years to come in areas like on-reserve infrastructure funding and child welfare legislation. 

Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC

Climate change dominated discussions 

Candidates were given five minutes each to talk at the session. A great deal of emphasis was placed on climate change and how addressing its impacts require co-operation and collaboration, and that Indigenous people have a fundamental role to play. 

Lydia Hwitsum, running as the Green Party candidate for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, said "As Indigenous people close to the land, close to our territories, we feel it first. We see and feel the impact of climate change in terms of our access to our foods and plants and natural world that has sustained us."

Teegee commended the candidates for speaking at length about climate change, which he said is "quite frankly the biggest issue," not only for North America but the world.

He said he was also encouraged in the commitments he heard about implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Candidates asked about Trudeau brownface photos

After each candidate spoke, those in the room were invited to ask questions. The first question redirected the conversation in the room to the photos of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in brownface that were published in the last 24 hours. 

One by one, each of the candidates spoke of their disappointment in Trudeau and many spoke about their own personal experiences with racism. 

"We can't wash the colour of our skin off; this is who we are," said Hwitsum. 

Bob Chamberlin, NDP candidate for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, said the photos were a reminder that "racism is alive and well in Canada."

Phillip said she felt Trudeau's apology rang hollow to her and that "if he had any integrity whatsoever he would step down."

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, running for re-election in Saanich-Gulf Islands, said "I felt physically ill."

Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC

Michelle Corfield, Liberal candidate in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding, was the last to respond to the question and started by saying she, too, was disappointed. 

"And then I heard it was 20 years ago," she said.

She reflected on who she was, where she was and what she was doing 20 years ago and talked about how her grandmother taught her that people make mistakes and need to be forgiven when they ask for it. 

"What I say today is I hope the country learns a lesson from this and that they take away something that is going to change people… That is my hope because he has asked for forgiveness, he has said sorry. It is now time for us as a country to look at that and take something from it."

The annual general assembly runs until Friday.