This election season comes during a year of mass reckoning with Canada’s colonial history. The unearthing of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools sparked a sea change in consciousness about the nature of the Canadian state and its relation to indigenous people. Calls to take the Land Back have grown in frequency and visibility. And yet when looking at the election campaign this issue has barely registered with the major parties. In this article we investigate what the major parties have to say about Indigenous issues, and what reason do we have to believe they’ll follow through on their promises.
Unsurprisingly, the most unabashed defenders of Canada’s colonial legacy, who last year called Indigenous land defenders “terrorists” and told them to “check their privilege”, don’t offer any real solutions for Indigenous people. However, it’s interesting to note that the winds of change have affected even the Conservative Party, who now feel the need to at least pander to Indigenous people and act like they have a plan for improving conditions in Indigenous communities.
Their pamphlet, “Canada’s Recovery Plan” mentions Indigenous people or Indigenous issues over 100 times, and almost all its major sections contain some “Indigenous angle”. It promises to “move forward with reconciliation”, “recognize Indigenous and treaty rights”, “work together with Indigenous peoples as nation-to-nation partners”, “ensure a just and secure place for thriving, self-determining Indigenous nations”, and “make the recognition of Indigenous rights a top priority”.
However, their policies show that the only “Indigenous rights” they’re interested in are the right of Indigenous business owners to exploit Indigenous workers. There’s no promise to seek consent from Indigenous people before green-lighting energy projects on unceded land, or any promise that these projects will benefit Indigenous workers. Instead, they promise to create a “Canadian Indigenous Opportunities Corporation” to provide loans to Indigenous capitalists, hire “regional economic development officers”, and develop an “Indigenous Business Mentorship Program”. The only promises directed toward Indigenous workers are about training programs, allowing business owners to extract even more value from their workforce.
Many of the Conservatives’ “pro-Indigenous” promises are just thinly-veiled attacks on Indigenous workers. For example, they say they’ll create a “streamlined environmental review process for major projects that partner with First Nations during the environmental assessment phase.” In other words, they’ll make it easier to approve risky resource projects that threaten Indigenous communities, as long as the company partners with a few Indigenous capitalists. They also promise to “commit $25 million to a national police support and community training program to reduce the incarceration rates of Canada’s Indigenous communities,” as if throwing more money at police departments will reduce incarceration.
There are a few decent promises in the Conservatives’ platform, but very few specifics on how they’ll be implemented, or any reassurance they’ll be implemented at all. For example, they promise to “provide $1 billion over five years to boost funding for Indigenous mental health and drug treatment programs.” but don’t indicate whether this will be in the form of corporate subsidies, and don’t indicate whether “drug treatment programs” include institutionalization. They promise to “end long-term drinking water advisories,” but don’t provide a dollar value of how much they’re willing to commit to making this a reality. Considering the previous Conservative government’s decade-long failure on the issue, there’s little reason to believe the next Conservative government will fare any better.
The Liberals’ platform raises a number of questions, starting with its title, “Forward. For everyone.” Who exactly is advancing “forward”? Since the Liberals took power in 2015, the unemployment rate among indigenous people living off-reserve increased by 4.7 per cent, the number of indigenous kids “scooped” by Child and Family Services increased by more than 800, and the annual number of indigenous homicide victims increased by 51. The Liberals have also broken their promise to end boil water advisories by 2020.
The new platform doesn’t give much reason to believe that the Liberals will follow through on their promises this time. Most of their promises to indigenous people start with, “Continue to” or “Accelerate”, indicating that they’re content with their record on Indigenous issues and just need to keep doing what they’re doing. Their first promise is to “build a national monument in Ottawa to honour residential school survivors,” indicating that their primary concern is empty symbolic gestures, much like their appointment of an Indigenous governor general.
Their substantive promises include committing “$1.4 billion for a distinctions-based mental health and wellness strategy”, “create 3,300 new child care spaces”, “invest $6 billion to ensure sustainable access to clean water for First Nations”, “invest a further $2 billion in Indigenous housing”, and spend “$2.2 billion over five years beginning in 2021-22, and $160.9 million ongoing, to address violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people”. However, the platform doesn’t go into detail about how these programs will be implemented. Judging by the Liberals’ track record, the spending will mostly be in the form of corporate subsidies, and “addressing violence” will come in the form of more cops.
Like the Conservatives, the Liberals are interested in fostering an Indigenous bourgeoisie, not improving conditions for Indigenous workers. This is why the 2021 budget prioritizes “renewing the Indigenous Community Business Fund”, establishing a “First Nations Finance Authority Emergency Fund”, expanding the “Aboriginal Entrepreneurship Program”, supporting the “National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association’s (NACCA) Indigenous Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative”, and launching the “Indigenous Growth Fund“. It disguises corporate subsidies with talk of investing in “Indigenous community infrastructure” and working with “Indigenous partners”. By “partners”, they mean public-private partnerships, and by “infrastructure”, they mean revenue-generating private enterprises. There seems to be an endless flow of cash for business owners, but never enough to end the boil water advisories.
The Liberals are hoping their cash promises can make up for their broken promises on land rights. Before he became Prime Minister, Trudeau promised that “every new policy and law would meet with the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).” However, the Trudeau government approved the construction of multiple pipelines on unceded Indigenous territory without their consent, arresting and forcibly removing land defenders when they resisted. Last December, the Liberals finally introduced a bill that appears to respect UNDRIP, but critics have argued it doesn’t go far enough, and may end up restricting Indigenous rights. From the broken promises to the court battles with residential school survivors, it’s clear that the Liberals’ gestures toward Indigenous rights are too-little-too-late.
New Democratic Party
The NDP’s Indigenous policies are more fleshed-out, and represent a noticeable shift to the left since previous NDP campaigns. Some of the highlights include implementing UNDRIP and the TRC’s 94 calls to action, including replacing “mere consultation” with a standard of “free, prior and informed consent” for energy projects, ending the lawsuits against residential school survivors, respecting “cultural rights, land rights, and rights to self-determination and self-government”, “ensure clean water and lift all drinking water advisories” (regardless of cost), “protect and revitalize the incredible diversity of Indigenous languages”, “tackle the mold crisis”, and correcting funding discrepancies in education, healthcare, and infrastructure. The NDP clearly covered their bases and made sure they at least address issues relevant to Indigenous workers.
However, the NDP falls into the same trap as the Liberals and Conservatives when it comes to “economic development”. All three parties seem to think that developing the Indigenous economy means supporting the Indigenous business class. Indigenous communities aren’t monolithic — they’re divided into capitalists and workers with irreconcilable interests. The NDP promises to “work with Indigenous entrepreneurs to find solutions for accessing capital and scale up.” Lack of access to capital isn’t the root cause of poor living conditions in Indigenous communities. Big capital is the problem. It’s large companies like Hudson’s Bay, Nestlé, Foxgate Developments, Baffinland Iron Mines, and TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Corporation) violating Indigenous rights and stealing their resources. Adding a few more Indigenous capitalists into the mix isn’t going to fix the underlying problem. Capitalism is a world system, and any business that grows in Indigenous communities is inevitably going to be subjected to the pressures of the world market, compelling them to privatize indigenous land and exploit indigenous workers for profit.
This is the problem with the NDP’s promise to implement UNDRIP, especially the clause of “free, prior and informed consent” before green-lighting projects. In a capitalist economy, the interests of capital will inevitably run up against the land rights of Indigenous people. This is exactly what happened in British Columbia when TC Energy wanted to construct a pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. Although the business-friendly band council supported the pipeline, it was opposed by the traditional chiefs who better represent the views of the community. Using this divide as a wedge, the NDP government under John Horgan allowed the RCMP to arrest Wet’suwet’en land defenders and drag them off their territory. It didn’t matter that the BC NDP had just recently adopted UNDRIP into law. Under capitalism, capital is the law. Unless you’re willing to strip capitalists of their control over the economy, they’ll treat working class Indigenous people as mere roadblocks to their endless pursuit of profit.
So while there are some nice-sounding promises in the NDP’s platform, their ability to implement them depends on their willingness to break with capitalism. The NDP leadership’s general willingness to get along with big capital (even handing them $6.3 billion every week in wage subsidies) makes that exceedingly unlikely.
So what then?
Even though none of the major parties (and not the Bloc, Greens, or People’s Party either) are willing to take the necessary steps to ensure Indigenous land and resource rights, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. On the contrary, with public opinion swinging drastically in favour of Indigenous rights, masses of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers toppling symbols of colonialism, and inspiring movements like 1492 Land Back Lane, hope is more alive than ever.
What’s dead is hope of Indigenous workers “reconciling” with their capitalist oppressors. It’s become overwhelmingly clear that the struggle of Indigenous workers and the oppressed will always butt up with the interests of Bay Street. A genuine socialist program for Indigenous liberation would include elements such as:
- Put the land and resources back in the hands of communities who live on them
- Expropriate all natural resource projects under workers’ control, actively involving Indigenous workers at every level of production
- End the boil water advisories through massive investments in Indigenous worker-controlled water infrastructure
- End homelessness on and off the reserves by ending for-profit housing and giving Indigenous communities resources they need to build housing for all
- End the mental health crisis with massive investments in Indigenous worker-controlled healthcare services, while addressing the root causes such as stressful work and intergenerational trauma
- End the erasure of Indigenous culture with massive investments in Indigenous worker-controlled education and media
- Topple all racist monuments and end the memorialization of colonial figures
- Revolution, not reconciliation!