WINNIPEG — Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was surrounded by First Nations leaders in Winnipeg as he stopped in constituencies with high Indigenous populations and pledged his party would be the best to prioritize those issues.
"New Democrats want to be allies to bring justice for the first people of this land," Singh said.
He was also joined by candidate Leah Gazan, a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation in Saskatchewan. She is running again in Winnipeg Centre, which she won in the last election.
A crowd of more than 50 people cheered when an eagle flew above the leader just before he began his remarks, saying the conscious of Canadians was shaken after thousands of unmarked graves were located at the sites of former residential schools across the country.
"It should not be an Ottawa-knows-best approach, but one of allyship and partnership and working together," Singh said.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Indigenous people are looking for a government that is willing to listen.
"A government that's not going to impose half measures, half steps in dealing with things," he said. "A government that's going to actually listen to the direction, a government that's not going to come with prescribed concepts and prescribed notions."
Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who represents northern First Nations in the province, said any government must move beyond rhetoric to more concrete plans.
"It's time to get real, pardon the expression, it's time for the BS to stop," he said.
The leaders, who say they are non-partisan and will support all Indigenous candidates, briefly met with Justin Trudeau when the Liberals campaigned in the city during the first week of the election. At the time, they had not had any communication with Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's team, whose campaign was also in town.
"Far too often people want to talk about us and not with us," Dumas said Thursday.
Earlier in the day, O'Toole called for flags to go back up after months of flying at half-mast over the discovery of the graves. He added that he's been talking to Indigenous leaders since he became the Conservative leader and has pride in Canada.
Experts and stakeholders have long criticized barriers that Indigenous people face when heading out to vote, in particular on reserve.
In the 2019 general election, voter turnout on reserves was just under 52 per cent, a drop from 61.5 per cent four years earlier when the Liberals pulled in record numbers of Indigenous voters. The New Democrats, historically, take in a lager share of on-reserve votes.
On-reserve voter turnout in both 2015 and 2019 were below the general voter turnout of 67 per cent across Canada in last election.
The Native Women's Association of Canada, however, has said Indigenous women could play a significant role in deciding the vote if there's outreach from parties.
"Indigenous women have waited long enough for the government of Canada to make our issues a priority," said Lynne Groulx, the organization's CEO.
"This election, we're done asking, we're voting. When political parties see us show up at the polls, they are going to have to start listening and taking action."
Last week, Singh was the first leader to campaign on a reserve when he visited the site of unmarked graves on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Singh's first stop on the Manitoba leg of his campaign for the Sept. 20 vote was in Winnipeg North. The riding has been long held by Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, but it has one of the lowest voting rates in the country.
New Democrat candidate Melissa Chung-Mowat, who is Chinese and Métis, has already spent significant time campaigning for the seat. She said she had experienced the challenges of housing insecurity and poverty growing up in the neighbourhood and that it is time for a new approach.
"It's going to be a challenge, but I believe in the NDP," she said Thursday.
"I believe that we need to make change from the inside out. We need people in positions of power who can make that change."
Singh said his party is presenting an urban housing strategy for Indigenous people that will be made by Indigenous people. He did not reveal a cost for the party's housing initiatives, which also include doubling the first-time homebuyer credit and measures to lower mortgage payments.
"There's been a lack of attention to the problem of a lack of housing for Indigenous communities and particularly outside of reserves, in major communities," Singh said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2021.
Kelly Geraldine Malone and Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press