Indigenous issues refusing to be ignored this election

More than half of Canada's Indigenous population of more than 1.6 million now lives in urban centres, including more than 42,000 in Ottawa — and more than ever before, they're voting.

Key concerns resonating beyond reserves, northern communities as urban Indigenous population grows

For students at Ottawa's Nunavut Sivuniksavut, the issues that matter most this election include Indigenous education, housing and mental health. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

At recent all-candidates meetings in urban Ottawa ridings, there's been no shortage of questions on Indigenous policies, reconciliation and the treatment of Indigenous children.

Next to the big concerns over climate change and affordability, Indigenous issues ranked among the five major discussion points for party leaders during Monday night's televised debate.

More than half of Canada's Indigenous population of more than 1.6 million First Nations, Métis and Inuit now live in urban centres, including more than 42,000 in Ottawa, and more than ever before, they're voting.

The Inuit vote

Cecile Lyall, an Inuk from Taloyoak, Nunavut, who currently studies in Ottawa, said she relishes the opportunity to vote this time, and hopes other young Indigenous people will do the same.

"This time there's so much room for growth in the voter turnout, especially with such a young population," said Lyall, 27, a third-year student in the academic and career development program at Ottawa's Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a post-secondary initiative for about 50 Inuit and northern students.

Outside of Nunavut, Ottawa has the largest Inuit population. It includes artists, students, bureaucrats, workers at non-governmental agencies and people receiving health treatments.

This time around, the three candidates running for the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives in Nunavut are all Inuit women.

Cecile Lyall is in a post-secondary program in Ottawa, but she plans to vote in Nunavut. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

"It's very inspiring because a young girl at home right, now she can picture herself running for federal elections, maybe someday running for prime minister," said Lyall, who is related to Nunavut's Liberal candidate.

As Lyall watches the Nunavut campaign from afar, two of the main issues for her are housing and food security in the North.

"This election, it's very refreshing because we see Indigenous issues and the betterment of the people really at the forefront of each of their campaigns, and a lot of it has to do with the youth."

Indigenous youth

The fastest-growing segment of Canada's Indigenous population is young people, according to Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

The AFN is calling on the federal government to consider that young population when making policy decisions, and to invest in "human capital" such as training and education programs.

"You're going to get huge returns on investment in the future. Canada's got an aging workforce — you got a skilled labour shortage there," Bellegarde said at a recent event at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

Progress doesn't mean parity.- Perry Bellegarde, AFN

Liberals across the country are campaigning on their record when it comes to Indigenous Canadians.

At a recent all-candidate's meeting in Ottawa Centre, Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna said the party has made investments and commitments, and has moved forward with land claim settlements — but she acknowledged there's more work to do.

While Bellegarde notes change is happening, he noted a huge gap still exists between the treatment of Indigenous people and the rest of the population.

"Progress doesn't mean parity. We have a lot of work to do working with governments both federal and provincial," he said. "The number 1 issue is climate change and then restorative justice and then continued investments in housing and water and infrastructure and education."

Indigenous candidate

The only candidate in eastern Ontario or western Quebec who identifies as Indigenous is Lorraine Rekmans, the Green candidate in Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.

Rekmans, a band member of the Anishinaabe First Nation of Serpent River, moved to Ottawa in 2000 to work for the National Aboriginal Forestry Association.

Lorraine Rekmans, the only candidate in eastern Ontario or western Quebec to identify as Indigenous, is running for the Green Party in Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. (Rekmans/submitted)

She now helps run a family business in Kemptville, Ont., and is the Indigenous affairs critic for the Greens. This is her first time on the ballot for the party.

Climate change, resource management and the younger generation are all issues on Rekmans's radar. 

"Indigenous youth are ending up in an urban areas, and we have to make sure that we have services to support them in that transition, because a lot of people move for employment opportunities," she said.

Just last week, the federal government decided to challenge the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that calls for the compensation of First Nations children who've been taken from their homes and communities.

It's a decision could leave the government on the hook for billions of dollars in compensation.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also supports a judicial review of the decision.

"This is a far-reaching decision that has major impacts on multiple levels of government," Scheer said. "It would be appropriate to have a judicial review."

The NDP's Emilie Taman, running in Ottawa Centre, said her party would respect the landmark human rights decision and ensure the level of funding for Indigenous children is equal to that for other Canadian kids.

"It's as simple as that," said Taman, a lawyer who formerly worked for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. "On the specific question of the human rights violation which is a part of the genocide against Indigenous people in our country, it's not good enough, I'm sorry."

The NDP would also invest in safe, healthy, affordable housing, increase money for post-secondary education and improve mental health services for Indigenous people.

Cecile Lyall plans to head back home to cast her ballot, and she hopes to encourage others to vote.

"It's something that I hope continues to gain importance and not just for the Inuit, but Canadians in general. It's very empowering to be able to sit in that booth and really feel like you're making a difference," Lyall said.