Two First Nations leaders from Manitoba endorsed a Liberal candidate running in the province’s north while standing next to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a campaign event.
Singh and two NDP candidates seeking re-election met with Manitoba First Nations leaders in Winnipeg last week to discuss some of the pressing issues facing Indigenous communities like housing and mental health.
While the chiefs said they were thankful Singh and his team organized this tête-à-tête during a busy election campaign — they said they would be backing Liberal candidate Shirley Robinson over NDP incumbent Niki Ashton in the Churchill–Keewatinook Aski race because they want more Indigenous voices in Canada’s Parliament.
Singh promised to renew Canada’s relationship with First Nations people after a traumatic year when preliminary investigations at a number of former residential school sites across the country indicated hundreds of children could be buried on the grounds. He said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is not doing enough to find the First Nations children who may be in these unmarked graves.
“The consciousness of Canada was shaken after the first discovery of the first 215 kids. … It is pushing us to go beyond the words that we’ve heard from leaders in the past — we need action,” Singh said at a press conference after the meeting, referring to the Kamloops, B.C., findings earlier this year.
“We want to be allies and we want to be standing shoulder to shoulder, to walk a path of justice, of respect, of dignity, walk that path acknowledging that we should be working with Indigenous communities as nation-to-nation partners,” Singh said.
‘We will always advance our First Nations candidates’
But the two regional chiefs on hand, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee, made it clear that their loyalties lie elsewhere — at least in one race.
Ashton, a long-time NDP MP, is running for re-election against Robinson, a former First Nations band councillor from Cross Lake, Man., in the province’s northernmost riding.
Settee said he has “nothing but respect for Jagmeet Singh on a personal level,” but he’s endorsing Robinson’s candidacy over the NDP incumbent.
“The candidate that is running for our riding — she’s Indigenous, and we want Indigenous people to get involved in this process,” Settee said. “We have a vested interest in what happens in Canada when it comes to Indigenous people and we continue to support Indigenous people as they run.”
The MKO, which represents 26 First Nations in treaty 4, 5, 6 and 10 areas of Manitoba, is officially “non-partisan,” Settee said, but “we support all strong leaders.”
“We will always advance our First Nations candidates,” Dumas added. “I think that it’s time for a fresh start in the north and I absolutely support Shirley Robinson for her candidacy,” he said, as Singh and the NDP contingent stood on behind him.
Settee stepped forward and said, “I concur with that comment.”
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Ashton, who is not Indigenous, has been a long-time advocate for Indigenous and northern issues in Ottawa, pressing for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and for clean drinking water on reserves, among other issues. She easily won the seat in the 2019 election with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
‘There’s been nothing brought to the North by her’
Ashton was not at the NDP press conference where Dumas and Settee backed Robinson.
Asked about the First Nations leaders’ endorsing Robinson, Singh said Friday that “it should be really clear that I support my candidate.”
“Niki Ashton has been a strong voice for Indigenous people and has a proven record, and New Democrats, in general, have shown that we are backing up our words with action. People can’t afford another four years of Mr. Trudeau,” he said.
“We are committed to making sure people get the help they need. New Democrats have shown again and again we’ll fight for them.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Dumas said he stands by his endorsement, saying Ashton has “absolutely not” done a good job as an MP for the region.
“You know, there’s been nothing brought to the North by her. There’s been no bills. There’s been no additional advocacy. It appears Ms. Ashton uses that position for self-promotion. It seems as though, you know, she’s used the auspices of that office for her own personal gain and has brought nothing forward for us,” Dumas said in an interview with CBC Manitoba, referring to Ashton’s past NDP leadership bids.
Dumas said First Nations leaders were particularly disappointed by her response to the Churchill railway issue. The railway was taken out of service when record flooding in 2017 washed out portions of the track to Hudson Bay — leaving the northern reaches of Manitoba without a link by land to the rest of the province.
Local First Nations leaders wanted an Indigenous-led group to take ownership of the line, but Ashton was pushing for nationalization instead, Dumas said.
The line was ultimately repaired with federal funds and is now operated by Arctic Gateway Group, a coalition of local rail-line communities, regional First Nations, Saskatchewan grain and pulse trader AGT Food and Ingredients, and Toronto-based holding company Fairfax Financial.
“The prime minister personally got involved in this issue to try and figure out a sustainable, defensible solution for northern Manitoba,” Dumas said.
WATCH: Two Manitoba First Nations leaders endorse Liberal candidate while at an NDP event
In a statement Tuesday, Ashton defended her record on Indigenous issues.
“I am proud to work with my NDP colleagues to fight for justice for Indigenous people,” she said. “I have been honoured to receive support from so many Indigenous people in the five elections that I have been a candidate. I am seeking their support again to continue the fight for improvements to health, housing, education and infrastructure. The fight for justice for Indigenous and Northern communities continues.”
Riding is 75 per cent Indigenous
Robinson, the Liberal, has appealed to First Nations people in the riding — in which about 75 per cent of the people identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit — to send an Indigenous person to Ottawa.
“We form the majority in this riding,” she recently told a group of chiefs, as reported by the Thompson Citizen, a local newspaper. “What we need is a strong voice from a native speaker inside the halls of influence. We need an Ininiw voice in there. I am eager and ready to be your voice,” she said, using the term for a Cree-language speaker.
“Sitting across the floor from government year after year does nothing to advance our dreams as Churchill–Keewatinook Aski communities, whether it’s reserves or municipalities,” she said, while touting past Liberal investments in the riding.
The Liberal government has made Indigenous issues a priority while in government, flowing billions in new funding to end drinking water advisories, repair First Nations schools, set up a new Indigenous-led child welfare system and revive Indigenous languages lost over centuries of colonialism, among other commitments.
On the residential school issue, the government has earmarked more than $300 million to help communities with their searches.
But Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has also faced criticism for the slow pace of change on some pressing issues — the government has promised to implement all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, but work remains on many of them — and for ongoing legal action related to children’s services.
While 109 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted on Trudeau’s watch, 51 remain in 32 communities.
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