GATINEAU, Que. — The federal Conservative and NDP leaders shared similar attacks at an Assembly of First Nations' chiefs' meeting Tuesday, both sowing a pre-election message that the Liberal government is all talk and no action on Indigenous issues.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was upfront. "Basically, I'm here to tell you that Canada's Conservatives are listening," he said.
Scheer addressed inequality by noting differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
"We want every, every single person who lives in our country to benefit from the opportunities that Canada has to offer," he explained. "These opportunities do not always reach Indigenous people. We need to work on that. We need to make sure that they do."
Casting to the future, the Conservative leader added that his party is "eager" to work with Indigenous communities — specifically the ones "who have embraced the development of our energy resources" and the opportunities they can bring.
He contrasted his hopeful message to the Liberals by referencing the Privy Council Office's mandate tracker of the status of government commitments.
"There are 27 priorities that are linked directly," he said. "Of those 27 priorities, zero have been completed. And almost half of them, the government admits, are behind schedule."
Referencing Indigenous suffrage achieved under John Diefenbaker and former prime minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology for residential schools, Scheer said Tories have had a "great relationship with First Nations people in Canada."
For Conservatives, the path forward involves listening, dialogue and "recognizing as a country that we must do more than just speak words," he said.
Earlier, delegates met in a small conference room to discuss the impact of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, introduced under Harper, and to hear the status of the initiative to repeal it.
That piece of legislation was passed in 2011 to show how public money is spent by elected leaders of Indigenous communities. Non-compliant communities risked having their funding frozen — a move the Liberals halted shortly after forming government.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's address hit on the same tone and message as Scheer's.
"We've heard a lot of encouraging talk from the government," Singh said. "And that's good. But words count for nothing if they're not backed up by action."
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He referenced a recent investigation by the National Observer that explored the "rigged" approval process that green-lit Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Singh described the nature of the government's consultation work on the project to be "just a sham."
"How can Indigenous leaders and communities trust the government if they're not honest or respectful," Singh said. "You deserve to know the truth."
Legislative time crunch ahead
According to officials, over 1,200 registered delegates from across the country are in attendance for the special chiefs assembly focused squarely on federal legislation.
It's the first time the AFN has called for a special chiefs assembly in over 10 years, according to National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
He told reporters there's increasing urgency for chiefs to develop a political strategy to ensure legislation currently before the House does not suppress Indigenous rights.
"We didn't have to call this two-day chiefs assembly," Bellegarde said, adding the rationale behind the gathering was to get chiefs together to find "some direction" on bills ahead of next year's election.
The time crunch is fueled by a Parliamentary rule that whenever the election writ is dropped, all government work comes to a halt and unfinished bills die on the Order Paper.
Bellegarde said there's a range of federal legislation that's of particular interest to AFN chiefs because of their possible effects on Aboriginal rights and titles — from bills proposing the protection and promotion of Indigenous rights and languages to marijuana legalization.
"How do they respect and reflect on treaty rights? Are they respecting First Nations' jurisdictions? All these questions come up. And so that's why we're here," he said.
The special chiefs assembly continues Wednesday with an address from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and more legislation workshops.