Like many First Nations people, I keep a weary and watchful eye on Canadian politics. From John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and architect of the residential school system that saw thousands of First Nations children taken from their homes, through to Justin Trudeau and his recent attempt to quash a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order to compensate First Nations kids discriminated against in the child welfare system, Canadian political figures leave a distinct impression in our communities.
The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to Aboriginal people, a legal term that includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, entrenched in the Constitution of Canada, but their track record on meeting this constitutional requirement has been discouraging, to say the least. Still, the amount of policy-writing and political advocacy that has taken place since the last election feels significant.
The current Liberal government inherited the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Justin Trudeau has stated time and time again that no relationship was more important to him, and to Canada, than the one with Indigenous Peoples. These words will cast a shadow on the next government, who will add “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” to an increasing number of reports, studies and recommendations on how to make the vision of Indigenous well-being a reality.
So, perhaps more than ever, this year’s election feels critical for Indigenous women. Despite the general exhaustion often associated with them, elections do matter—and advance polling numbers indicate that this one matters to a lot of people. An estimated 4.7 million people have voted in advance polls, a 29% increase over the last federal election.
As a Mohawk woman and policy analyst, I’ve spent my career working to advance the safety of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. I understand our historical context and experience firsthand how systemic barriers impact our communities. And I feel profoundly invested in analyzing how the political parties compare when it comes to the issues most deeply impacting Indigenous women. For the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Green parties, I analyzed what demonstrates that they fundamentally understand the impacts of gender, ending violence and the connection of these two things to climate action.
Do Canada’s political parties meet the health and safety needs of Indigenous women?
The status of women in any community is a key indicator of its health and well-being—Indigenous communities are no exception. So, for me, how each of the federal parties (and candidates) plans to build on the policy infrastructure in place in order to end violence against Indigenous women is the critical element of this federal election. Of course, this issue does not exist in a vacuum. The safety of Indigenous women can only be achieved within a context that respects her rights to land and water. Achieving safety requires that Indigenous women have a political voice, can be a catalyst for change and are given accountability. Addressing climate change and advancing the rights of Indigenous communities in general must happen alongside the effort to end violence against Indigenous women because these complex issues are deeply connected. To win my vote, parties would need to demonstrate that they understand the complexity of these issues: safety, political mobilization and land/water jurisdiction as it relates to climate change.
First Nations women have distinct needs that the federal government is obligated to meet. For example, while most Canadians access their health care services through their province or territory, Status Indians also have access to the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program. Through this program, under a doctor’s supervision and with prior approval from Indigenous Services Canada, Status Indians may access hormone replacement therapy. Increasing access to this program is one way that Indigenous women, men and two-spirit or gender non-binary Indigenous people can be made safer. This program also provides coverage for the abortion pill, which is especially important for First Nations people who may become pregnant in rural, remote or fly-in communities. First Nations, Métis and Inuit women rely on the federal government to provide them with services.
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The Green Party platform will “devote sufficient resources for maternal health and infant care” in Indigenous communities, however, investments in new programs aren’t indicated in their platform costing. The Liberals and Conservatives also fail to make new investments in Indigenous health in their platforms. Compare this to the New Democrats, who will invest $40 million over four years to eliminating period poverty and $829 million over four years towards Indigenous health.
Do the parties actually invest in ending violence against Indigenous women?
I think all people are tired of political promises that don’t translate into concrete action. This is how I feel about the commitment political parties make to ending violence against Indigenous women—the plans and actions put in place must be concrete. It’s a skepticism that other Indigenous women share.
The Greens, Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats all make a commitment to Indigenous women in their platforms, to varying degrees. The Green Party commits to implementing the calls for justice but fails to commit to an Indigenous-specific National Action Plan. Instead, the Greens will invest $25 million over five years towards one National Action Plan that includes Indigenous women, which is contrary to the first call for justice of the Inquiry and recommendations from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women its Causes and Consequences.
The Conservative Party does commit to an Indigenous-specific National Action Plan, but it isn’t clear if they plan to implement any other calls for justice and they don’t allocate any line item in their budget towards ending violence against Indigenous women. The Liberals also make a commitment to an Indigenous-specific National Action Plan and a broader commitment to the calls for justice, but, like the Tories, fail to include any investment in their budget.
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In this category, the New Democrats stand apart. While their platform matches the other parties’ strongly worded commitment to ending violence, their platform commits $430 million over four years to ending violence initiatives. This is the single biggest commitment to ending violence against Indigenous women ever made in the country. It’s something that Indigenous communities need. Indigenous women are forced to submit to violence and exploitation because they have no reasonable alternative. Our society has failed to create and maintain reasonable alternatives including safe housing, health access and job opportunities required for women to live free of violence. Radically changing these circumstances requires more than good will. And Indigenous communities aren’t looking for a blank cheque—what families of missing and murdered women and survivors of violence have stated over and over again is that they want to be free from violence.
Do Canada’s biggest political parties recognize the need for Indigenous women to have jurisdiction over land and water?
Disconnecting Indigenous people from their lands and waters continues to cause massive disruptions to Indigenous social structures. When communities experience this disruption, it results in disproportionate levels of violence. The political mobilization of Indigenous women is the catalyst for change in our communities and having space in decision making and policy development, and deliberately creating space for policy making that considers diverse genders and sexualities, especially in areas like addressing climate change, or restoring Indigenous jurisdiction over lands and waters, is key. It cannot be overstated: For Indigenous women, gender justice relies on exercising jurisdiction over lands and waters. A heartening example of the political mobilization of Indigenous women is the race in Nunavut, where three Inuit women vie for votes: Mumilaaq Qaqqaq for the New Democrats, Leona Aglukkaq for the Conservatives and Megan Pizzo Lyall for the Liberals.
Indigenous women understand our needs and the immediate action required to address them better than anyone. And our collective right to self-determination is something that more political parties are beginning to understand. As stated in the Liberal Party Platform, “we need to continue to move forward, to a place where Indigenous Peoples in Canada are in control of their own destiny, making their own decisions about their future.” The Green Party “acknowledges that Indigenous Peoples have stewarded lands and waters in their traditional territories for centuries. A Green government will respect Indigenous sovereignty over self-defined and self-governed lands—whether First Nations, Métis or Inuit—and respect all rights that their title to land entails, including the right to stewardship.” These statements are important, but they still don’t make the connection between stewardship and gender-based violence.
By comparison, the New Democrats “acknowledge that respect for Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people must be made real by ensuring equitable access and self-determination over land, culture, language, housing, child care, income security, employment, education, and physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual health.”
Indigenous women shouldn’t have to wait for political parties to catch up, or gain popularity, in order to be made safe. Whatever party forms government this federal election has to understand that meaningful change will come from Indigenous women, girls, queer, trans and two-spirit people having control over how progress is made and measured, how priorities are set and defining for themselves what safety looks and feels like.