O'Toole promises 'serious approach' to Indigenous reconciliation

New Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says he wants to chart a new path in the Crown's relationship with Indigenous peoples — a relationship he says has been marred by the Liberals' reliance on symbolism over action.

New leader says Conservatives plan to focus on Indigenous economic potential

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said reconciliation, to him, means full Indigenous participation in the economy. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

New Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says he wants to chart a new path in the Crown's relationship with Indigenous peoples — a relationship he argues has been marred by the Liberals' reliance on symbolism over action.

"You're going to see a serious approach to reconciliation under prime minister O'Toole," he told a press conference Wednesday.

"I haven't seen a serious approach from Mr. Trudeau, despite positive rhetoric. I want to see action and positive movement."

A senior party adviser to O'Toole said the Crown relationship with Indigenous peoples is a priority for the new leader. The adviser said O'Toole's approach to the file will be based on three simple principles: show up, listen and have an open dialogue.

O'Toole already has formed some relationships within the Indigenous business community. He was also the only Conservative leadership candidate to sit down for an interview with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde for his Ahkameyimok podcast.

During that 45 minute discussion, O'Toole said that to him, reconciliation means Indigenous participation in the economy to the fullest extent, along with collaboration and partnership with communities. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde interviewed Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole for 45 minutes on his podcast during the Tory leadership race. O'Toole was the only candidate who accepted Bellegarde's invitation to appear as a guest. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bellegarde said O'Toole's willingness to participate "speaks volumes" about his accessibility to Indigenous leaders. 

"If Erin O'Toole's job is to make the blue tent big enough to include everybody in Canada, including First Nations people, he needs to build a relationship with First Nations people — as do all parties," said Bellegarde.

O'Toole touts relationship with chief in home riding

During the podcast, O'Toole brought up his relationship with Chief Kelly LaRocca of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation — the only First Nations band in O'Toole's Durham riding — as an example of his outreach.

This appears to be a departure from O'Toole's predecessor Andrew Scheer, who did not have close relationships with the 12 chiefs in his riding of Regina—Qu'Appelle and was booed at an AFN chiefs assembly after he couldn't say how his approach to Indigenous affairs would differ from that of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

LaRocca told CBC News she's known O'Toole since 2012 and described their interactions as pleasant, even though they don't always see eye-to-eye.

For example, LaRocca said, she read O'Toole's leadership platform on "igniting the Indigenous economy" and concluded he has to be clearer about what that means.

"By focusing the Indigenous economy in the periphery and as the pathway to reconciliation, Erin hasn't made clear, at least to me, how to address the many other very important issues," she said.

LaRocca said she would like to see a plan from O'Toole on how to deal with the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice and child welfare systems, the high rates of suicide and substance abuse in Indigenous communities, the lack of high speed internet connectivity in remote areas and the problem of systemic racism, particularly within the RCMP.

O'Toole's leadership platform said he wants to guarantee clean drinking water for every Indigenous community, get land claim settlements and title issues moving again and address the high cost of food in the North.

But LaRocca said she wants to see more — including a proposal to address the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established under the Harper government to document the history and legacy of Canada's residential school system.

"Why is boosting the Indigenous economy the panacea to the intergenerational effects of residential schools and all of the other colonial policies?" she said.

"I question whether it is to pursue an economy of land and resource extraction ... that will only serve to further alienate Indigenous peoples to what matters most to them."

UNDRIP still a concern

O'Toole said he is not a fan of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which sets international standards on how nation states deal with Indigenous peoples.

O'Toole said the Supreme Court has set a higher bar on the so-called "duty to consult" than what is outlined in UNDRIP.

The Liberal government has promised to bring in legislation to implement UNDRIP in Canada.

Erin O'Toole and JP Gladu got to know each other during O'Toole's first run for Conservative leadership in 2017. (Supplied/Mokwateh)

The Conservatives voted against a private member's bill to implement UNDRIP the last time it was before Parliament in 2019 and it died in the Senate. The Conservatives' main concern at the time was the possible impact of an UNDRIP clause on the need for "free, prior and informed consent" from Indigenous peoples in order to proceed with natural resource projects. 

Bellegarde said UNDRIP legislation is an important part of reconciliation. He called UNDRIP the best way to balance the economy and the environment so that communities can create employment in a sustainable way. 

"If they [Conservatives] don't understand fully the implications of the UN declaration, it is indeed the roadmap to reconciliation in Canada," he said.

Bellegarde said free, prior and informed consent will bring about economic certainty and stability in the country once it is fully endorsed — but Conservative opposition is not a deal-breaker when it comes to the AFN's relationship with the Conservative Party of Canada.

Conservative critic for Crown-Indigenous Relations Jamie Schmale said the Supreme Court of Canada should be the body that defines free, prior and informed consent. 

"We're not totally against UNDRIP," he said. "We believe reconciliation needs to happen … We don't think anyone in Canada should have a veto over ... a major infrastructure project, so that's why we've been calling for a Supreme Court definition on what exactly what free, prior and informed consent means."

Turning to Indigenous business community for ideas

O'Toole has turned to JP Gladu, the former president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, as a sounding board for policy ideas. 

Gladu, who is now the chief development relations officer at an Indigenous construction and service company in the oil and gas sector called the Steel River Group, got to know O'Toole during the previous Conservative leadership campaign.

O'Toole's leadership platform includes a commitment to establishing a national Indigenous procurement policy to bring Indigenous businesses into government procurement — something Gladu said can be put in place quickly.

"I think he's a very genuine guy," Gladu said.

"It's not necessarily in the Conservative roots to reach out to Indigenous leaders. It's not part of their base, typically, so Erin was very open-minded to talk to somebody like me."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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