09/29/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/28/2014 05:59 EST

Trudeau Liberals Woo High-Profile Aboriginal Candidates Ahead Of 2015


A rejected aboriginal education act, a controversial financial transparency act, persistent calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, court challenges to major energy projects and rumblings of more Idle No More protests.

Those are just some of the conflicts that threaten to further hobble an already fractured relationship between the federal government and First Nations.

With the next federal election campaign less than a year away, the Liberals are moving to position themselves as the party that can repair that relationship and give aboriginals a voice in Parliament.

At least three high-profile aboriginal candidates have decided to run for Justin Trudeau's Liberals in 2015, says Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett, who has been working with aboriginal members of the party to recruit candidates.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, a regional chief with the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, will run in Vancouver Granville. Daniol Coles, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, will run in the newly formed riding of Edmonton Griesbach. And Michèle Audette, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, has received the green light to seek the nomination in the Quebec riding of Manicouagan.

In separate interviews, all three candidates say Trudeau has not made them any promises.

"I think the most important thing we can offer them is a voice," Bennett said.

The governing Conservatives, in fact, count four aboriginal MPs among their ranks, including two cabinet ministers: Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, Rod Bruinooge and Rob Clarke.

Labrador's Yvonne Jones, elected in a by-election last year, is the Liberals' only aboriginal MP, while the NDP have two aboriginal MPs.

Education act future uncertain

Wilson-Raybould worked with Shawn Atleo, former national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, until his abrupt resignation last May amid criticism from First Nations leaders over his support of the government's aboriginal education bill.

As a chief who represents 203 First Nations in B.C., Wilson-Raybould was touted for a run for the leadership of the AFN, but chose instead to run for the Liberals.

"The voices of aboriginal people, the voices of Canadians, in my view, aren't being heard and it's being reflected in legislation that isn't working or will substantively have to be revisited," Wilson-Raybould said in an interview with CBC News.

The government has said its prized bill will remain on hold until it receives the AFN's support. But its future remains uncertain in the face of a judicial review launched by the AFN in Quebec and Labrador under the leadership of Ghislain Picard, who is now running to replace Atleo.

Eric Cardinal, a one-time adviser to the AFN and now a senior consultant specializing in aboriginal affairs for public relations firm National, said the only way to break the impasse is for the government to consult with each First Nation across the country — not just the AFN.

"I know it's huge, but that's what you need to do."

Sometimes, Cardinal said, First Nations raise objections to projects or legislation not because they are against it, "but because they didn't have a chance to really be a part of the process."

And that applies to the aboriginal education bill.

"The irony is that [with consultations] they would probably, at the end, come back with the same bill, but with the support of First Nations leaders," he said.

Liberals say sorry

Coles, a young Métis from Alberta, is preoccupied with the amount of time the government has spent fighting First Nations instead of working with them.

Coles said the Liberals vowed, at their biennial convention in Montreal in February, not to repeat "the mistakes of the past and strive for meaningful consultation when considering legislation and policy that impact the right of indigenous peoples."

That included a resolution formally rejecting Pierre Elliott Trudeau's infamous 1969 white paper that proposed an end to the Indian Act and calling it "a serious mistake."

According to Coles, who chaired the Liberal Party's Aboriginal Peoples' Commission for two years, the apology set the younger Trudeau apart from his father in the eyes of aboriginal chiefs. And in Alberta, where the memory of Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program still stings, saying sorry is not insignificant.

"It was groundbreaking," Coles said.

Action plan but no inquiry

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own historic apology in 2008 on behalf of Canada for the residential schools was seen for a time as a turning point in relations with First Nations.

Six years on, however, aboriginal leaders say the government has not done enough to close the gap between aboriginal people and other Canadians. The government's refusal to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women is just the most recent irritant.

Audette, a well-known Innu activist from Quebec, has been one of the voices calling for an inquiry, which both opposition leaders support.

When MPs returned to Ottawa two weeks ago, the Conservatives tabled a $25-million action plan to deal with violence against aboriginal women and girls. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch have said they are open to taking part in a roundtable with aboriginal leaders and premiers to discuss the issue.

But despite a long list of justice and public safety initiatives, nothing the Conservatives have done to date has appeased those calling for an inquiry.

New Democrats, led by MP Romeo Saganash, scored a victory on the issue by forcing an impromptu debate in the Commons earlier this month. Saganash is one of two aboriginal NDP MPs elected in Quebec during the so-called Orange Wave of 2011.

If Audette clinches the Liberal nomination in Manicouagan, she will be challenging the NDP's other aboriginal MP, Jonathan Genest-Jourdain.


Photo gallery Protests For Missing, Murdered Aboriginal Women See Gallery