Indigenous rights 'non-issue' in provincial election campaign

Human rights activist Ellen Gabriel, a human rights activist from Kanesatake, said the provincial political campaign has once again ignored all issues affecting the province's Indigenous people.

Activist Ellen Gabriel closes testimonies at MMIWG inquiry

Human rights activist Ellen Gabriel recommended that both Canada and the provinces implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Julia Page/CBC)

The political parties running to form the next provincial government have failed to address the needs of Indigenous people in the provincial elections campaign, commissioners at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women heard today.

''It's a non-issue in these elections. It's about energy security, it's about economics, but it comes from our land," Ellen Gabriel said.

Gabriel, an artist from Kanesatake and former president of Quebec Native Women, became a spokesperson for Mohawk protesters during the 1990 Oka Crisis — the 78-day standoff between Mohawks, the Sû​ré​te du Québec and the Canadian military over the town of Oka's plan to expand a municipal golf course on contested land.  

She said little has changed in the 28 years that followed.

"Regardless of the year of the election, the problems remain the same for us," Gabriel said.

Self-determination, language and land rights are still far removed from any of the political platforms, she said.

The Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, has also been trying to call attention to governance over the past few weeks.

Picard has been tweeting to parties ahead of the three televised debates, asking the leaders to explain how they would "renew the government to government relationship with First Nations."

"The Quebec government can no longer hide behind the federal government to avoid its obligations towards First Nations", Picard said in a statement.  

Focus stays on energy projects

The only mention of First Nations during the debates came from discussions about the Apuiat wind turbine project.

If elected, the Liberals would finalize an agreement with three Innu communities and Boralex Inc., to generate 200 megawatts of electricity on Quebec's North Shore.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has criticized Liberal leader Philippe Couillard over the course of the campaign, questioning the value of Hydro-Québec buying more wind energy, when the utility already has an unsold surplus of electricity.  

During Thursday's debate on TVA, Legault said Couillard was "buying votes" on the North Shore, by promising a $1.5-billion investment.

Leaders faced each other in the final debate on Thursday night. (TVA)

"First Nations will be happy to get $500,000 in royalties, but Quebecers will be paying $1.5 billion in losses at Hydro-Quebec," Legault said.

In the English debate the previous week, Couillard mentioned he would turn to Indigenous workers as another way to respond to the ongoing labour shortage.

Narrow vision

Gabriel said focusing only on economy, without engaging in deeper questions which define Indigenous communities, like the trauma of colonization and residential schools, is perpetuating racism and social inequalities.

She said these elements all tie into violence against Indigenous women and girls.

"If you take away the identity of a people, if you make them feel that every aspect of their being is wrong, you create this atmosphere that we are non-issues," she said.

Expert testimonies earlier in the week had also underlined how energy and mining projects in remote parts of Canada jeopardize the safety of Indigenous women and their families.

One of the main recommendations Gabriel submitted to the inquiry was the complete implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Sacred objects are laid out on the ground during the hearings of the national inquiry in Quebec City, in September 2018. (Julia Page/CBC)

She said it is instrumental to provide a legal framework to First Nations, Inuit and Métis, under which governments could no longer escape.

"If there was an actual reconciliation, there needs to be reparations," Gabriel said.

In their platforms, the Parti Québécois, Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire all pledged to ratify the Declaration.

A spokesperson for the PLQ said the party was "favourable" to the principles of the Declaration, "however the implementation of complex principles requires a more complete analysis and ongoing dialogue with First Nations."

Last leg of inquiry

Gabriel's testimony closed a week of featured expert panels and advocacy groups, focusing on policing, the justice system and the incarceration of Indigenous women and men.

Yesterday, a professor from Université Laval suggested the need for a complete overhaul of the federal justice system, which is "imposing a white institution on Indigenous people without their consent."

Throughout the week, witnesses detailed how systemic racism continues to impact the lives of Indigenous women in Canada.

"The long-term effects of colonization and intergenerational trauma contribute to women being missing, murdered or incarcerated," said Kassandra Churcher, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Commissioners also expressed their regrets this week about having to write their report without having heard directly from incarcerated women, because of the government's refusal to extend the inquiry, as they had requested.

The inquiry will move on to Winnipeg, Man., and St. John's, N.L., in October.