Before those suffering Harper Derangement Syndrome get their shorts in a knot (as if that will not ever happen), let me enumerate the reasons why First Nations peoples – especially those at the grassroots level – should strongly consider voting for the Conservative government.
First, let me agree that the Tories are not perfect and have been insensitive in the past, such as when Prime Minister Stephen Harper said an inquiry on murdered indigenous women was not high on his radar.
But now let’s look at the facts.
Rather than making grand and symbolic political gestures such as calling for unrealistic repeals of the Indian Act, the Harper government has instead focused on practical remedies to First Nations problems, and that goes far beyond his historic residential schools apology and settlement.
The Conservatives worked with the Assembly of First Nations on landmark Aboriginal education legislation that would have addressed the lack of education standards for First Nations and increased accountability. While many chiefs wanted money with no strings attached, that is not what Aboriginal students and families need.
In 2008, the government amended Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act so First Nations living on reserve could file discrimination claims against the Canadian government and First Nations governments. The Canadian Human Rights Commission says indigenous people are taking advantage of their new rights.
In 2013, the Conservatives also closed a longstanding and much-criticized gap where indigenous women on reserve were denied equal access to marital property in case of marital breakdown.
The government passed opt-in legislation dealing with longstanding reforms to the Indian Act election system, something long demanded by indigenous communities. The First Nations Elections Act and its regulations came into force in April 2015. The law allowed for four-year terms and provided clear offences and penalties, as well as removing the minister from the process. This law will help First Nations communities that have long suffered from band election irregularities.
The government eliminated Canada’s conflict of interest by creating an independent land claims body through the Specific Claims Tribunal Act in 2008. This body is not perfect, but has dealt with many outstanding claims.
The Conservatives are tackling water and wastewater problems on reserve. The First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan was introduced in 2008 and involved millions of dollars in investments. The government also passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, legislation finally providing enforceable clean water regulations.
The government passed the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, one of the most meaningful pro-grassroots pieces of legislation. The law provides basic transparency to band residents who are often denied information, including chief and councillor salaries. This transparency appeals to outside investors eager to work on reserves.
The New Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development, introduced in 2008, focuses on practical ways to bring Aboriginal peoples into the economy. The Crown-First Nations Gathering also laid out plans for indigenous governance, economic development, education and treaty implementation.
The government invested millions in Aboriginal labour market programming in its last budget, which focused on job skills building, not just managing poverty on reserve. The federal government’s desire to advance natural resource projects will help First Nation and Metis communities who are dependent on those sectors.
Finally, the Conservatives have committed to a First Nations Property Ownership Act, a transformational piece of legislation that would advance First Nations economies.
The Conservatives do need to treat First Nations more on a ‘nation-to-nation’ basis. Critically, the Conservatives need a serious plan to narrow the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. They could also act to protect Indigenous languages.
However, they have a practical record, focusing on results, and are less likely to merely inject money into broken systems.
Joseph Quesnel is an Aboriginal policy analyst who focuses on Aboriginal policy, property rights, and water market issues.