First Indigenous-focused panel a learning opportunity for political candidates, officials say

A handful of mayoral candidates along with those running in wards 4, 11 and 13 were invited to speak on Wednesday at the first Indigenous-focused panel at the N’Amerind Friendship Centre. Those wards are said to have a high percentage of Indigenous populations.

The panel was held at the N’Amerind Friendship Centre on Wednesday

Seven mayoral candidates showed up to the meeting on Wednesday. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Local Indigenous officials say some London candidates vying for a councillor or mayoral seat this fall election "need to do their homework" when it comes issues related to local First Nations communities.

A handful of mayoral candidates, along with those running in wards 4, 11 and 13, were invited to speak on Wednesday at the first Indigenous-focused panel at the N'Amerind Friendship Centre. Those wards are said to have a high percentage of Indigenous populations.

Organizers from the Indigenous Leadership Circle focused on several topics, including water preservation, community safety and Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations. 

And while some candidates delivered comprehensive answers, officials said, the majority lacked the knowledge to speak on some of those topics.

"I'm really proud of some candidates and really disappointed in some others," said Circle member Joe Antone, who is also a counsellor at the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC).

"I don't expect candidates that are non-Indigenous to know everything about Indigenous issues, but I want to know that you've at least taken the time, an hour or two, to do your homework," he said.

Frances Moore is part of Indigenous Leadership Circle. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

"We sent out a survey weeks in advance outlining some of the questions that we were going to ask, and unfortunately some of [the candidates] showed that they did not do their homework," added Circle member Frances Moore, who is also the operations and national outreach manager for We Matter, an Indigenous educational campaign.  

Both organizers noted the efforts that some candidates made to reach out to their community beforehand.

"The ones that showed up and made effort prior [to the panel] are going to be the ones that shine in our community," said Antone.

'Them coming to us is a big thing'

Officials said some candidates used outdated terms like "aboriginal." There were also several times when candidates danced around a question to avoid a direct answer.

One example was a question that asked about the most important TRC recommendation. Officials said two of seven candidates directly answered. Officials didn't want to call out any individual on the record.

There was also little focus on systemic issues, such as barriers to health care systems, officials said.

Some of the questions asked included topics around water preservation, the safety of community members and the recommendations made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

However, Brian Hill, president of the centre, said the event unveiled an "opportunity for education around who we are and where we come from."

The fact that candidates were willing to come out in the first place was a good first step that is "part of that reconciliation," he added.

"It's important for them to come to the door and immerse themselves in the community … Them coming to us is a big thing," he said.

"It's a start … This is something we can look back on," he said.

Hill noted that the involvement of Indigenous populations within local politics has grown in the last four years. He said it's because of recent progressive conversations with the current mayor and council.

"Our involvement with the city has snowballed. It's getting bigger and better," he said. "But, we still have a long ways to go."

Officials hope that issues related to First Nations communities are made a priority in the political race.

What was asked?

There were unique questions asked to every set of candidates in the four categories. Here are some candidates answers to some of the questions:

Organizers asked mayoral candidates what their plans were to protect the waters of the Thames River for future generations.

Mayoral hopeful Tanya Park addressing the crowd of about 80 Wednesday. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Mayoral hopeful Tanya Park reiterated her support to decommission the Springbank dam and called for more investments in waterways going forward.

Another question that was asked was about how candidates will keep Indigenous people safe in London.

Paul Cheng, who's also running for mayor, said he would ask Indigenous communities what they need their council to do.

Ward candidates were asked about the most important TRC recommendation.

Lawyer Kevin Wilbee focused on the importance of the justice system. Arielle Kayabaga said consultation with and listening to the community was an important factor, along with improved transportation.

Gil Warren spelled out four specific recommendations including the 57th call to action, which urges all levels of government to educate the public on the history of Indigenous people.