“I think it’s been said to me before, actually by David Suzuki – this might be the most important election in First Nations peoples history.”
That was the closing remark from moderator Ken Watts, vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, at an all-candidates meeting Tuesday night at the Thunderbird Hall.
Watts’ speech underscored the importance behind the forum which was hosted by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and the Wei Wai Kum First Nation in an effort to drive people to the polls on election day, Oct. 19. Attendance at the forum, however, was sparse; approximately 30 people.
The forum kicked off with the four candidates each allotted 10 minutes to discuss their party’s platform, before delving into issues near and dear to First Nations’ hearts.
Questions from the audience largely centred around fisheries and First Nations’ rights.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a 1990 B.C. court decision confirming the right of native people to fish and sell their catch. The candidates were asked what their party, if elected, would do to implement that decision.
Brenda Sayers, representing the Green Party of Canada, was the first to speak and said while she wasn’t able to answer directly because the matter is before the courts, she could say the way First Nations have been treated is wrong.
“I will speak to the unfairness of our people continually having to go before the courts to protect their rights,” said Sayers, who is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation. “For us to be able to go out onto the rivers to do what we’ve always done, or to hunt, and to not be able to do that, to me is a direct violation. I will do my best to work with other Green MPs and other members of parliament to find a solution.”
Peter Schwarzhoff of the Liberal Party of Canada said he believes Fisheries and Oceans Canada needs some “major shake ups in how they get things done. There are some serious problems within DFO (department of Fisheries and Oceans) that need addressing, not only your issues but fish allocation generally. I think there is a very flawed process in how that’s done.”
Laura Smith with the Conservative Party – the current governing party in Canada – said her government is not appealing the decision upheld by the Supreme Court which said the current regulatory regime infringes on the rights of First Nations to fish and sell the fish.
“It’s an important decision and I believe the government has accepted that,” Smith said. “We’re not appealing that decision but what we do want clarity on is whether it’s a justifiable infringement or not. I know there have been past decisions that have said you have to accommodate but there can be policies that infringe on rights that can be justified.”
The NDP’s Rachel Blaney said the court case is evidence that there needs to be better cooperation and consultation between the federal government and First Nations.
“When I look at the relationship between First Nations people and government right now, it’s adversarial, it’s ‘let’s go to court about everything’ and we need to start actually having those conversations and making those decisions together.”
Blaney added that it’s important the government creates a relationship with a lot more respect towards First Nations.
“We don’t want to be a government that takes First Nations people to court again and again.”
The candidates were also questioned on how to stimulate the economies of each community within the North Island-Powell River riding.
Schwarzhoff said there are still the traditional industries, including salmon fishing and forestry. He said if the Liberal Party takes power, it will provide money to First Nations communities.
“We’re going to be putting money back into First Nations education,” Schwarzhoff said. “We know there’s a gap, we’re going to close the gap. We’re going to be creating additional funding for people wanting to go to post secondary education or for skills training.”
He said the Liberal Party platform is focused on building new infrastructure and one of the things the party will require is apprenticeships for those projects.
“Why wouldn’t we have the opportunity for First Nations to get the training, become apprentices and develop their skills?”
The Conservatives’ Smith said the Island has long suffered from a boom and bust economy due to its reliance on natural resources.
“But we still have the fisheries sector, we have a lot of potential in the aquaculture sector as long as it can be done in an environmentally sustainable way,” Smith said. “We have a lot of opportunity with energy and hydro projects – the Quatsino First Nation is working on a windmill power project up north.”
Smith added that First Nations have rights and titles they need to develop for their own prosperity.
Blaney agreed Islanders live in a boom and bust economy and said the NDP will support First Nations’ desires to remain in place.
“It’s about having good consultation with those communities about what they need, what are we going to do and how do we support them,” Blaney said. “For us, it’s about infrastructure. We know housing is a huge issue across the board. I’m getting a lot of calls about terrible housing in some of the communities and we need to be looking at what we’re doing in terms of infrastructure.”
Sayers, who comes from a business background, said if elected she will first look at the landscape and determine what’s there in the way of economic development in each community.
“There’s also looking at green energy – there’s one in the North Island that’s very successful – and tourism. Tourism is another great area, as well as the arts,” Sayers said. “An area that’s not really talked about a lot is the arts. We have a lot of really skilled people in that area. It’s an area that we don’t really focus on a lot and it’s really important to us.”
For more on the candidates’ take on First Nations issues, see next week’s edition of the Mirror.
QUESTIONS?…If you have a question you would like the candidates to address at the upcoming All Candidates Meeting, submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org A selection will be put before the candidates at the forum on Thursday, Oct. 8 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Tidemark Theatre.