The discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves in Canada, most believed to belong to indigenous children who attended residential schools, inspired nationwide calls for reconciliation over the summer. But on the federal campaign trail so far, the issue has faded to the background.
Leah Gazan, a Winnipeg member of Parliament, was driving home from Ottawa when she learned of a second discovery of unmarked graves in Western Canada.
It was the month of June. More than 200 people’s remains, mostly children, some as young as three years old, had been discovered in the province of British Columbia just a few weeks before. In Saskatchewan, 751 more graves had been discovered, making it the largest discovery to date.
The remains of students from Canada’s state and church-run residential school systems were discovered at the two burial sites, shocking the country and triggering a national reckoning over residential schools.
Ms Gazan went for a run in Winnipeg, fighting the exhaustion and grief brought on by the second discovery. She took her usual route over the Provencher Bridge. She discovered the bridge wrapped in orange ribbon, part of a cascade of makeshift memorials erected by Canadians in the aftermath of the discovery. Ms Gazan, a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation, was moved by the outpouring of support and ran her fingers along the fabric.
More than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered in western Canada near former residential school grounds. Since the summer, flags have been flown at half-mast, and statues of famous Canadians associated with the residential schools have been demolished.
However, on the national campaign trail, the focus has shifted away from the subject and toward issues such as the cost of living, housing, and childcare.
It appears to be out of step with Canadian voters, who support reconciliation – repairing the relationship between indigenous peoples, non-indigenous peoples, and the government – is at an all-time high.
According to Abacus Data polling, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the snap election in mid-August, one in five Canadians listed reconciliation as a top five issue, more than doubling the figure from the 2019 federal election.
“The discovery of those unmarked graves has really put a focus on this issue in a way that people haven’t seen before,” said Abacus CEO David Coletto. “It’s at the top of the agenda for the first time in a long time.”
According to internal polling conducted by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a national advocacy group representing First Nation citizens in Canada, more than 60% of Canadians believe that indigenous issues are a top priority for the upcoming election.
“Most Canadians want to move forward; we just don’t have the political will,” Ms Gazan said.
The former teacher and community organiser represents one of the country’s poorest ridings. She has advocated for a basic income guarantee and affordable housing. However, she stated that this time, reconciliation is “front and centre.”
All of Canada’s major national parties have made broad commitments to indigenous peoples in their platforms.
In 2015, Mr Trudeau’s first successful run for prime minister, the Liberal leader benefited from a historic increase in indigenous reserve turnout – 61.5 percent, up nearly 15 points from the previous election.
The landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report was released in December of that year. It detailed decades of abuse against indigenous peoples in the country, including widespread failures in the care of children forced to attend residential schools, which amounted to “cultural genocide.”
Mr Trudeau had promised “full reconciliation,” which included carrying out all 94 of the TRC report’s recommendations. According to a running tally by CBC News, 13 of the projects have been completed after six years under a Liberal government, with 29 projects still in the works. Thirty-two are in the proposal stage, and twenty have not even begun.
Despite Mr Trudeau’s repeated pleas for patience, there is growing dissatisfaction with the pace.
“You can’t piecemeal this thing,” said Niigaan Sinclair, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba.
Mr Sinclair, who is Anishinaabe, likened the Liberal Party’s progress to changing the drapes on a run-down house. “They just try to make the house look better, but the foundation is still broken,” he explained.
Erin O’Toole, in his first election as Conservative leader, has also made broad promises to indigenous communities, emphasising plans for improved economic partnerships. Mr. O’Toole, who is tied with Mr. Trudeau in the polls, has also pledged C$1 billion ($7.9 million USD; £5.7 million) to increase funding for indigenous mental health and drug treatment programmes.
Mr. O’Toole has also stated his support for the Northern Gateway Pipeline project, which was halted by a court order in 2016 due to a lack of consultation with First Nations. While some First Nations support the project, others have raised concerns about environmental concerns.
Some critics have also claimed that his pledge to toughen penalties for those who protest pipelines and other “critical infrastructure” will unfairly target indigenous activists.
“It just appears to be a thinly veiled attack on indigenous people,” said Kathy Walker, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
Indigenous leaders have praised Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Jagmeet Singh, for its platform, which includes a pledge to advance indigenous self-determination and end all drinking water advisories immediately.
The Trudeau government says it has lifted 101 long-term advisories but failed to meet its 2015 campaign promise to lift them all by March 2021.
However, the NDP’s influence in parliament will be limited, as the party is currently polling at around 19 percent.
“The NDP is the most progressive party in the country,” Mr Sinclair said, “but they’ll never form government.”
At a recent campaign stop in Winnipeg’s majority indigenous riding, two First Nations stood beside Mr Singh and thanked him for organising the event, which was dedicated to issues affecting indigenous communities, before endorsing the Liberal candidate, Shirley Robinson of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, over the non-indigenous NDP candidate.
However, Ms Gazan, a member of the New Democratic Party, stated, “I don’t want people to elect me because I’m indigenous; I want people to elect me because of what I stand for.”
Nonetheless, her priorities – addressing violence against women and girls, addressing housing security, and addressing climate change – are shared by many indigenous groups.
The contenders in this election may be the clearest sign of progress for the advancement of indigenous issues. According to the Canadian Press, a record 77 indigenous candidates are running in this election, up from 72 in 2019.
“It is critical that indigenous candidates stand up,” said AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. “I’m writing each of them a letter, encouraging them in their work and telling them how brave they are… regardless of which party they belong to.”
Among these newcomers is Ms Robinson, the Liberal candidate for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba. She is a residential school survivor, having been sent to the McKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin when she was 15 years old.
“It was horrible, it was lonely, you wanted your mom and dad to be there with you and they weren’t,” she recalled.
That is why she is fleeing. “We need someone to stand up and pave the way for our people and reconciliation,” she explained.
Nonetheless, some former indigenous MPs have abandoned the idea of Parliament as a place to effect change.
Two of the ten indigenous candidates elected in 2019 have decided not to run again this year: Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former Liberal justice minister turned independent MP, and Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq. (Neither was available for comment.)
Ms Wilson-Raybould said in a July statement that Parliament has “become increasingly toxic and ineffective while simultaneously marginalising individuals from certain backgrounds.” “In my opinion, federal politics is increasingly a disgraceful triumph of harmful partisanship over substantive action.”
Ms Wilson-Raybould, who has clashed openly with Mr Trudeau, has a book – ‘Indian’ in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power – coming out during the campaign that details her experience during the SNC-Lavalin scandal that saw her removed from his cabinet.
Ms Qaqqaq told the House of Commons in June that security guards had racially profiled her and that she felt unsafe during her two-year term.
“Every time I walk on House of Commons grounds, every time I speak in these chambers, I’m reminded that I don’t belong here,” she said.
Ms Gazan is back on the campaign trail in Winnipeg, calling her time as an MP “the greatest honour of my life.”
“And here’s the thing for me: throughout history, everything has been put in place to keep indigenous women down,” she explained. “Despite everything, we’re still here, and I’m still here.”