From Harper to Poilievre: what is the Conservative vision for Indigenous Peoples?

OTTAWA — When Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks about what his party's relationship with Indigenous Peoples would look like should he become prime minister, it's often about "economic reconciliation," or the idea that Indigenous Peoples should be included in all aspects of the economy without barriers.

He also speaks about public safety, charging that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn't doing a good enough job of protecting Indigenous Peoples from violent crime — even as he endorses tough-on-crime policies that some experts say risk worsening the overrepresentation of marginalized groups in prisons.

And he has hinted at much bigger policy shifts, saying earlier this year that he believes the Indian Act is "a racist, colonial hangover," and pledging that a Conservative government would "fully fund all the inquiries" into possible graves on the sites of former residential schools.

Still, though Poilievre has made some attempts to rewrite the script for how the Tories engage with Indigenous communities, he has to contend with the difficult history of his party's relationship with Indigenous Peoples — as well as his own.

He also has to reckon with the concerns of representatives from some Indigenous organizations who say their expectation for a Conservative federal government is to see a crackdown on federal funding for programs.

They expect a sharp contrast with the Liberals, who early in their tenure placed a heavy emphasis on reconciliation.

Poilievre was not available for an interview, but his office referred The Canadian Press to previous statements.

The office of MP Jamie Schmale, the Conservative critic for Crown-Indigenous relations, said he had no comment. Staff for Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal did not respond to requests for comment.

In a video posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, in November 2022, Poilievre spoke about politicians in Ottawa who think they know what's best for First Nations.

"I think we need to put an end to the 'Ottawa knows best' mentality where politicians and bureaucrats in the nation's capital dictate to First Nations. That has not worked," he said.

"We need to restore to First Nations control of their own lives, their own decisions and their own land."

He also spoke of removing "gatekeepers" who "stand in the way" of development in First Nations communities, citing economic and educational benefits for "all of the Wet'suwet'en communities along the Coastal GasLink" who are "benefiting" from the pipeline.

"They get jobs, skills, revenue for social services, opportunities for their communities, independence from Ottawa."

The Coastal GasLink pipeline has been subject of criticism and ongoing protests, with some Wet'suwet'en leaders saying they did not consent to the pipeline under their own laws and customs.

Earlier this year, Poilievre announced he and his caucus would be consulting with Indigenous communities and industries on an initiative they could opt into that would see them receive more revenues from resource development on their lands.

Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor at McMaster University who leads the Indigenous water research program Ohneganos Ohnegahdę:gyo, said the Conservative party doesn't seem to have a "firm grasp" on the issues affecting Indigenous Peoples today.

Still, she pointed to how the party can sometimes be a little more frugal with the federal budget, which can be "practical" in some instances.

"They might actually come out with a solid plan, which would be my hope," she said.

But Martin-Hill said if issues like resource development and the legacies of residential schools and the '60s Scoop aren't handled in a meaningful way, young Indigenous Peoples aren't likely to stand by.

"Most of our population is young. That's a recipe for disaster if they push a hard-line conservative Indigenous agenda and deny reconciliation," she said.

"If they do come in and try to revert back to the Harper doctrine, it's not going to be good."

The last federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper saw one of the largest Indigenous rights movement in recent times, Idle No More, which picked up steam in November 2012.

The movement was sparked by the introduction of the omnibus Bill C-45, also known as the Jobs and Growth Act.

Indigenous Peoples said the bill would diminish their rights, while giving governments and businesses more authority to develop resources without a strict environmental assessment.

The protest movement grew to encompass environmental and Indigenous rights more broadly, and earned widespread support among Indigenous Peoples across the country — and the world.

Prominent Indigenous activists say that Harper's government seemed to ignore other pressing issues on the Indigenous agenda.

Though it adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 after years of opposing it, that government gave a caveat that the declaration would be aspirational rather than legally binding.

Their initial opposition was to parts of the declaration that speak about land and natural resources, and the duty to consult with Indigenous Peoples on those matters. The declaration ultimately became law under the Liberals in June 2021.

Carol McBride, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, spoke of the former Conservative government's reluctance to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

In 2014, Harper had said a national inquiry wasn't "high on our radar," but that his government would "continue to be in dialogue" with people concerned about the issue. Trudeau launched such an inquiry within months of forming government in 2015.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, has worked with both Liberal and Conservative governments.

She doesn't necessarily agree with the idea that Indigenous leaders should be rushing to push their interests ahead before the next federal election based on expectations, or fears, of potential funding cuts.

"When it comes to questions of treating children fairly, that ought to be a bipartisan issue. And fulfilling your requirements as a government under the law ought to be a bipartisan issue," she said in an interview.

Still, she critiqued previous Conservative governments for what she said was the denial that problems exist within Indigenous communities, "despite there being overwhelming evidence of a problem," especially about issues around child welfare.

"By doing that denial, they were literally letting the cash register on public money continue to build, because it's far cheaper to deal with the problem and ensure kids are treated equitably then to wait for things to get worse, and then you have to pay compensation."

When it comes to Poilievre himself, many Indigenous Peoples still remember him for comments he made on the day Harper delivered an apology to residential school survivors in the House of Commons in 2008.

Speaking with CFRA News Talk Radio before the apology, Poilievre said he wasn't sure Canadians were "getting value for all this money" — money to compensate former students who were forced to attend residential schools.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement, which was implemented in September 2007, allocated $1.9 billion for former students.

"My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance. That's the solution in the long run — more money will not solve it," Poilievre said.

He quickly apologized and said he accepted responsibility for his comments, which he called "hurtful and wrong."

Despite his apology, some Indigenous leaders say those words still affect their perception of Poilievre. And a more recent incident brought back some of those memories.

Just this year, Poilievre spoke at a luncheon in Winnipeg for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy — a group that ran radio adds in 2018 saying the idea that residential schools robbed Indigenous kids of their childhoods was a myth.

A spokesperson for Poilievre said at the time that his appearance with the group didn't mean he endorsed "the views of everyone who has ever worked" for them.

On the other hand, Poilievre is the only current federal party leader who has not attended an Assembly of First Nations meeting, though he has given speeches in front of chiefs by video conference.

McBride, who is also a former chief of Timiskaming First Nation and grand chief of the Algonquin Nation, said she still thinks back to Poilievre's comments in 2008.

"It shows you the character of a person to come out in a public forum to say such awful things," said McBride.

"This is what makes me really, really worry about him."

In June this year, Poilievre released a statement marking the anniversary of that apology, saying the legacy of residential schools "remains an ugly and horrific blight in the history of our country."

He went on to talk about the "unimaginable trauma" experienced by children in those institutions, and the ripple effects those events had on their families, communities and generations of Indigenous Peoples.

He summed up his approach to Indigenous communities this way, not specifying which government's policies he meant to disavow: "Conservatives renew our commitment to putting an end to the government-knows-best attitude that led to the harmful policies of the past."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2023.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press