Scheer's relationship with Indigenous people is being tested in this election

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he is committed to building an open and positive relationship with Indigenous people as prime minister, but some First Nation leaders say he has done little as an MP to build ties with reserves in his own riding of Regina—Qu'Appelle.

A Scheer government would face an extremely skeptical First Nation leadership

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer represents 12 First Nations in his riding of Regina—Qu'Appelle. Scheer has described the relationship as good, but community leaders say that isn't so. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he is committed to building an open and positive relationship with Indigenous people as prime minister — but some First Nation leaders say he has done little as an MP to build ties with reserves in his own riding of Regina-Qu'Appelle.

The relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people is one of the key policy areas Scheer will have to navigate if he takes office, and one that the previous Liberal government spent a lot of political capital on rebuilding.

While the Conservative Party has not released its full platform yet, Scheer's public statements to date signal he'd set a tone different from the Liberals' approach.

But on Friday, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau filed an application challenging a landmark human rights tribunal decision to compensate First Nations kids harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system.

The move comes one day after Scheer announced he would do the same if he was prime minister.

One of Scheer's signature promises — to build an east-west energy corridor for pipelines and hydroelectric lines — would have to contend with the Crown's constitutionally required duty to consult affected Indigenous people before shovels could ever hit the ground.

A Scheer government also would have to decide what to do about infrastructure funding for persistent problems on reserves, such as long-term boil water advisories.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, right, speaks during the opening of the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting in Regina, Sask., on July 25, 2017. (Mark Taylor/Canadian Press)

Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation is the home community of David Pratt, who is a vice chief with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) in Saskatchewan. It's one of 12 First Nations in Scheer's riding. 

Pratt said many First Nation leaders from the riding tell him Scheer has seldom visited any of their communities since he was first elected MP in 2004 and they feel he has largely ignored many of their concerns.

"There is a lot of concern in First Nation country of Mr. Scheer," said Pratt. "We don't feel he has done a good enough effort of reaching out to First Nations in his own home riding."

Scheer 'distant' as MP

Pratt said he was voicing concerns about Scheer as an individual and was not speaking on behalf of the FSIN, which does not take partisan positions.

Pratt said Scheer skipped the FSIN meeting this past May in Flying Dust First Nation, which is almost 300 km from Saskatoon. The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and leaders of the NDP and Green Party. Saskatoon-Grasswood Conservative MP Kevin Waugh attended the meeting.

The meeting took place outside Scheer's own riding but Pratt said that, as the leader of the Official Opposition and Saskatchewan's highest-profile MP, Scheer should have been there.

"How are you going to effectively be able to lead in the spirit of reconciliation and be a leader of all 634 First Nations in Canada if you cannot foster or build a good relationship with the 12 First Nations in your own riding?" said Pratt.

Pasqua First Nation Chief Matthew Peigan said he's found Scheer "distant" as an MP and describes the prospect of Scheer as prime minister as "scary."

"If he didn't want to engage as an MP and Speaker of the House, who is he going to engage as the prime minister?" said Peigan.

"In my view ... he doesn't respect First Nation views, opinions, positions ... as prime minister he would do what he would want in terms of legislation, policy, programs that impact First Nations."

David Pratt, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, wants Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to make more of an effort to reach out to First Nations in his riding. (CBC)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde's home community of Little Blackbear First Nation is also in Scheer's riding. The two leaders have known each other for a number of years.

"I believe that if Andrew Scheer wishes to become prime minister of Canada, he's got to have a different approach with First Nations people to be more accessible," said Bellegarde, who has called on Scheer to improve on the chilly relationship his predecessor Stephen Harper had with First Nations.

Scheer's relationship with Indigenous communities got off to a rocky start. He was booed by chiefs gathered for and AFN meeting in Ottawa back in December when he said that they would have to wait for the release of his party's platform to find out how his approach to the Crown-Indigenous relationship would differ from Harper's.

No land acknowledgements in Conservative campaign 

The Conservative Party has still not yet released its full platform, so it remains unclear how a Scheer government would approach the relationship.

So far, the Conservatives have been the only major political party that has not made Indigenous land acknowledgements during campaign events.

The practice of politicians making a statement at the beginning of a campaign or policy event to acknowledge that the event is taking place on unceded traditional Indigenous territory has become increasingly common since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on residential schools.

"I can assure you that a Conservative government will treat Indigenous communities with the respect that they deserve," Scheer told CBC News.

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is calling on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to disavow former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's approach to Indigenous issues. (Mike O'Shaughnessy/CBC)

When questioned, Scheer would not commit to the practice of acknowledging unceded territory. He said that a Conservative government would "uphold treaty rights" and address issues faced by Indigenous people on and off reserve.

Bellegarde said that's not quite good enough.

"By not making any land acknowledgement, he's really denying the history of Canada," Bellegarde said. "I think that does send a message and that does need to be improved upon."

Removal of controversial statues revisited

On the campaign trail, Scheer also signalled he wouldn't support the trend of removing statues of prominent Canadian historical figures like John A. Macdonald — a key architect of the residential school system — to acknowledge the racism of their actions.

During a campaign stop in the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding during the first days of the campaign, Scheer told a supporter he was against statue removals and that history shouldn't be rewritten.

"I do believe it's important for Canadians to understand our history and to be proud of our history," he said during a scrum with reporters. He later said he would be making a "more specific" announcement on the issue during the campaign.

Chief Matthew Peigan of Pasqua First Nation says Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been distant as an MP. (CBC)

Bellegarde said the movement that led to the removal of such monuments is about telling the truth of Canadian history.

"You don't hold up people who have implemented a genocide by the residential schools," Bellegarde said. "If you tell the truth, than people's attitudes and opinions will be changed in a more positive light because that's the history of Canada."

Concerns about implementing UNDRIP

Scheer also has declined to fully embrace the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, saying the document's section on free, prior and informed consent is too vague and could block resource development projects important to the Canadian economy.

"If we want to be a country where we can get big projects built again, we have to be very careful about … the wording on these type of things," said Scheer on Sept. 20.

Scheer has been asked several times during the campaign whether he regrets describing Indigenous opposition to resource projects as attempts to hold those projects "hostage." Scheer made the comment during the first leaders debate and has not repudiated it since.

Bellegarde said UNDRIP — an international document that sets out minimum standards for a nation state's interaction with Indigenous peoples — is a roadmap to reconciliation. Bellegarde said he wants voters to consider where political parties stand on UNDRIP as they prepare to vote.

"That should be embraced, not put to the side," Bellegarde said. "It's important to start using that."

Pratt said Scheer should consult with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Waugh about how to fashion his approach to the Crown-Indigenous relationship.

"Kevin (Waugh) is great ... he is available, he hears our concerns, I can pick up the phone and talk to Mr. Waugh," he said.

"It's not hard to pick up a telephone and reach out to somebody. It's not hard to say, 'I'd like to talk.'"


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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