The Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba is shown on Aug. 21, 2019.
Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
The Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba is shown on Aug. 21, 2019.
POLITICS
10/16/2019 16:23 EDT | Updated 10/18/2019 16:25 EDT

In Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Reconciliation Is A Ballot-Box Issue

Veteran NDP MP Niki Ashton is being challenged by two Indigenous women candidates.

THOMPSON, Man. — Robert Spence chokes back tears behind his sunglasses as he looks out on Split Lake, waters he doesn’t know anymore though his umbilical cord is tied to this place.

The Tataskweyak Cree Nation band councillor never imagined having to put up signs warning of E. coli, a gut-punch decision to keep kids from the simple joy of swimming as late August turns brisk on this northern Manitoba reserve.

“It reminds you that everything is changing, and not everything for the better,” he says.

Once a commercial fisherman, Spence says it wasn’t so long ago you could drink from these waters, on the Nelson River system, with a cup. You could watch the fish in nets deep below. These days you can barely see six inches down with all the crap and crud, he says.

Spence blames decades of development and dams in the north for all that’s changed here, even as this reserve is in partnership with Manitoba Hydro to build a generating station at Keeyask.

This beautiful, remote place, home to about 2,300, was placed under a boil-water advisory after flooding in 2017. A year later, the reserve made the advisory long-term while pushing the federal government for upgrades to its water-treatment system and a water-source study. The feds have set a target of March 2021 to lift all such advisories across Canada.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Robert Spence, a Tataskweyak Cree Nation band councillor, is shown on the reserve on Aug. 21, 2019.

For years now, Spence says, independent water testing has come back high for E. coli, and folks are nervous about getting sick from the water that is pumped into its treatment plant and then through its taps. Though the federal government says the water is safe to drink, the reserve wants Assean Lake, about six kilometres away, to become its new water source.

Spence says most drink bottled water, either from the shops in Thompson, about 150 kilometres away, or from the store on reserve that sells it for an “arm and a leg”: $9 for a case of 24 bottles. 

With a federal election weeks away, we’ve come to talk about politics. We’ve come to talk about reconciliation, too, and the nation-to-nation relationship that has been promised.

“All the politicians that I’ve ever met have ... given us false hopes and promises, just to get into positions of power and authority to benefit the south,” he says.

Are they waiting for us to die off first because we’ve always been the Indian problem?Robert Spence

 

Spence charges that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau “lied to the people” when he promised safe, reliable drinking water for all First Nations within five years. Eighty-seven long-term drinking water advisories on reserves have been lifted since Trudeau’s government came to power in 2015.

But that’s cold comfort to Spence, who appears damned tired of being told to be patient.

“Are they waiting for us to die off first because we’ve always been the Indian problem? That’s how I feel about it,” he says. “And these politicians in Ottawa? They don’t give a shit about us over here. They care more about their manicured lawns. They care more about their nice vehicle outside.”

This is one of about 40 First Nations communities in the federal riding of Churchill–Keewatinook Aski, many of them accessible only by plane. This vast district surrounded by boreal forest is 75 per cent Indigenous and, at more than 430,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Sweden. It’s also more than half the size of the entire province.

According to a 2018 report from anti-poverty group Campaign 2000, this riding’s child poverty rate — 64.2 per cent — is the highest in the country. The median age here is just 27.2.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
A "No Swimming" sign is shown on the Tataskweyak Cree Nation on Aug. 21, 2019.

Its seat has been held by the NDP’s tireless Niki Ashton since 2008. First elected at 26, she has been a forceful advocate in the House of Commons for the north and Indigenous people. She’s twice run for her party’s leadership. In 2015, Ashton was re-elected by fewer than 1,000 votes.

But this election could be present unique challenges for her, not just because of summer public opinion polls that show the NDP struggling. With Liberals facing a tight re-election campaign, this place could also be a testing ground for how Trudeau scores on the measure he wants to define his legacy: rebuilding Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.

And if Liberals can turn this NDP riding red — as it was, briefly, before Ashton’s first victory — or Conservatives squeak out a win here, that could matter greatly if the vote produces a minority Parliament.

It’s hard to argue Liberals haven’t put their money where their mouths are. Billions have been spent or earmarked to improve lives for Indigenous people. In its election-year budget, the Trudeau government committed to spend $4.5 billion over the next five years on Indigenous services, including $739 million to improve water systems on reserve and eliminate boil-water advisories on time.

“There are, today, children living on reserve in Canada who cannot safely drink or bathe in or even play in the water that comes out of their taps,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the Commons while unveiling a spending plan overshadowed by the SNC-Lavalin affair. “That is not OK.”

Watch: Trudeau’s UN speech addresses Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people

 

The government says yearly spending on Indigenous people to pay for health care, housing, education, and other services will hit $17 billion in 2021, an increase of 50 per cent from the year Liberals were elected.

But the Liberal approach to reconciliation has also been complicated by its approval and purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project that many Indigenous communities oppose. 

In 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal found the Trudeau government had not adequately consulted Indigenous communities on the project, forcing Liberals back to the drawing board. In June, Liberals reapproved the project one day after passing a motion declaring a climate emergency.

The prime minister also apologized in March for glibly dismissing a protester who interrupted a Liberal fundraiser to ask about mercury poisoning victims on the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

Weeks from this chat on Split Lake, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will conclude that Trudeau’s government and that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children on reserves. 

So, in spite of it all, frustration remains. 

As does mistrust.

“We’re all made of water. There’s no way we can live without the water,” Spence says. “So, whatever affects the water, affects us.”

***

Judy Klassen still can’t get used to ice in her glass. She grew up drinking water that was hauled from a local well and kept in a pail on the kitchen table.

The Liberal candidate in Churchill–Keewatinook Aski, Klassen hails from the fly-in St. Theresa Point First Nation. She says she now splits time between the reserve and Steinbach, about 60 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

Klassen calls her formative years in the remote community a blessing.

“Everybody took care of one another, everybody looked out for one another,” she told HuffPost Canada while campaigning at the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, also known as Nelson House, where unchained dogs roam freely. 

Klassen, 47, says her grandfather always told her she’d have to run for office if she were asked. “He was a wise man,” she says. “He knew that’s where change would happen.”

When Manitoba Liberals courted her to run provincially before the 2016 election, Klassen says with a laugh that she had to Google what a member of a legislative assembly does. That year, she ended up unseating a longtime NDP cabinet minister in Keewatinook, the largest provincial riding.

In short order, Klassen was named the interim leader of the Manitoba Liberals, making her the first Indigenous leader in that party’s history. She told jarring, uncomfortable truths in the legislature, such as how people in her home community carry around box cutters “because you never know when you will come across a child hanging from a tree.”

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Judy Klassen, the Liberal candidate in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, is shown on Nelson House on Aug. 20, 2019.

And she made public her private pain, telling colleagues about a time, more than 25 years ago, a partner hit her so hard that she passed out on the side of a road. She was six months pregnant at the time.

“Luckily, I hadn’t fallen on my belly,” she told HuffPost. “I had fallen off to the side but I was knocked out.”

Klassen says she spent years in that violent situation before escaping one winter’s night, running barefoot to her aunt’s home to call the police. Asked what compelled her to share such a story, Klassen said, simply: “Because that’s what the people elected me for. I speak from my heart.”

She says she was inspired to run for the federal Liberals because of the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

“It’s not just about the money. It’s about believing in us. And it’s about empowering us, because we are valuable people.”

It’s going to take a lot. There’s been 150 years of colonization.Judy Klassen, Liberal candidate

With Liberals in power, she says, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel, a sense of optimism for First Nations people, who are seeing improvements to infrastructure and housing. But there’s still so much to do, she concedes, including settling water issues once and for all. 

“It’s going to take a lot. There’s been 150 years of colonization,” she says.

Her message to voters is that there is “no time for fighting anymore.” Indigenous voices are being heard by the party in power, concerns are being addressed. She calls it a “turning point,” but says that fragile progress is jeopardized by Conservatives who want to go “backwards” under Andrew Scheer.

“A lot of leaders are very scared of a Conservative government getting in. That’s why they asked me to run, because they want another term… at least one more term with Justin Trudeau… just to undo the damage that Stephen Harper did to our communities,” she says.

Although Harper apologized for the national shame of residential schools, his government’s tensions with Indigenous communities also sparked the Idle No More movement.

Klassen says it’s time for Indigenous people to be “at the table” and in the room where decisions are made, an opaque dig at the incumbent who has never sat in the government benches.

***

The Northern Inn in Thompson is bustling with people who mostly want to talk about anything but politics over their eggs and bacon.

Stacey Ellingston, eating breakfast with her elderly dad, wants to see more federal money transferred to the provinces for health care. Too many people need to go all the way to Winnipeg just to see specialists, she says.

“Instead of sending everything overseas, and stuff like this, more of that money could be going here. All over northern Canada, not just Manitoba,” Ellingston says.

And while she praises the Trudeau government for stepping up with $74 million to buy and repair the damaged railroad leading to Churchill, northern Manitoba still needs so much help.

“Showing up for a picture and handshake is not getting the job done.”

Leonard Elder says he’s basically “got no complaints” with the Liberals but would also like to see more health care dollars sent to the provinces. In general, he thinks, all federal parties are “trying” to pay more attention to the north.

Graeme Linklater, a school bus driver from Nelson House, says he wants more investment in infrastructure, but he doesn’t really pay close attention to issues. He’s never voted before and isn’t sure if he’ll do so this time. 

Nearby, Barbara Ellis, manager of the Wawatay Inn, says the people in this community are “left on the backburner” by the decision-makers in Ottawa. Her inn provides lodging for people from northern reserves who must come to Thompson for medical treatment, the fee covered by Indigenous Services Canada.

Josette Johnson, who is in town from Barren Lands First Nation, says politicians take an interest only during election campaigns. 

“Things that I want changed, don’t come. The promises are just promises. Broken promises,” she says. “It’s been like that all these years.” 

Johnson says she is still rattled from an incident in the wee hours this morning while she was having a smoke. A man brandished a gun while arguing with another fellow riding a bike, she says. 

Mordy White, the maintenance man at the inn, tells HuffPost that violence is a major issue in Thompson, often singled out as Canada’s violent crime capital. He heard there was another stabbing last night.

“We’re forgotten people up here,” he says between drags of his cigarette. “Nobody ever tries to help us out.”

This is colonialism

A day later and about 450 kilometres away in Canada’s capital, Ashton calls a press conference to highlight a push from First Nations in the Island Lake region — including St. Theresa Point — for a hospital.

Ashton also wants a public inquiry into how First Nations are given “second-class” treatment when it comes to their health care, despite the federal government’s treaty obligations. She references the tragedy of Abraham Donkey, a man from Nelson House, who died in 2018 trying to take a bus to Winnipeg to see a doctor about his heart condition.

This is what systemic racism looks like, she says. This is colonialism.

“My message to the prime minister is that his rhetoric on reconciliation means nothing, given the reality on the ground. Simply put, Mr. Prime Minister, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” Ashton says.

***

A little later that day, Ashton sits down with HuffPost for an interview in the halls of Parliament. We wanted to chat back in Thompson, her hometown, but it was not in the cards this week despite best efforts from both sides. 

Ashton says she was drawn to politics in the thick of the debate over same-sex marriage that gripped the nation in 2005. After the local NDP MP broke ranks with the party to vote against marriage equality, Ashton challenged her for the nomination and won. Ashton lost in the 2006 election, she says, because of a “vote split” when the incumbent MP ran as an Independent.

Her father, Steve, was an MLA in Thompson for 35 years and served in cabinet under different NDP governments.

Ashton, 37, says she’s inspired to represent a place where people summon the strength to keep going. 

“I’m proud to come from a part of the country that is extremely resilient, but we do have to recognize there’s immense challenges,” she says.

The “overarching issue” in her riding, she says, is the second-rate treatment of Indigenous people, from what she describes as “Third World living conditions” and a struggle for adequate housing to what she calls underfunding in health care.

Adrian Wyld/CP
NDP MP Niki Ashton rises in the House of Commons in Ottawa on on May 20, 2016.

And climate change is felt in “more extreme ways, in more intense ways” in the north, with “many people, especially First Nations … sounding the alarm that we need leadership.”

But there’s such humanity there, too, she says. The winters are long and hard, and people pull together as a community.

Ashton does not buy that the money Liberals have spent to tackle the specific problems confronting Indigenous people is making the difference needed on the ground, where she says hundreds of people are on waiting lists for housing in some communities and others are in overcrowded, mould-plagued dwellings.

“We’re talking about conditions that no non-Indigenous Canadian would accept and, in many ways, would even see fathomable.”

And there’s the “betrayal,” she says, of that pipeline. Trans Mountain isn’t running through these communities, but she suggests it cuts through the heart of that nation-to-nation relationship that Trudeau pitched.

‘It’s shocking. This is Canada. It’s 2019’ 

“A lot of First Nations people that I’m hearing from in northern Manitoba are saying that they had hope for Trudeau and many are saying that they feel let down and even betrayed,” she says.

But can she not concede that Liberals have taken real, concrete action to improve things?

“I think that the Liberals care about the public relations aspect,” she offers. “I think that they care about speaking to non-Indigenous Canadians, many times, on Indigenous people on the ground is that they’re not responding to the reality that they face, day in, day out.”

And on boil-water advisories, she gives no quarter.

“It’s shocking. This is Canada. It’s 2019. This is one of the richest countries in the world and yet people — and the First Peoples in this case — don’t have access to clean drinking water.”

A lot of First Nations people that I’m hearing from in northern Manitoba are saying that they had hope for Trudeau and many are saying that they feel let down and even betrayed.NDP MP Niki Ashton

We tell Ashton that many of the people we’ve met, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, don’t seem to have much time for politicians or feel listened to. She says she works to stay in touch, travelling ice roads, by boat, by plane, and by driving campers on dusty roads to meet constituents.

“I know the feeling well of not being heard, as somebody from the north, but for Indigenous communities, this is a historic reality.”

Ashton says she has heard the argument “many, many times” that having an MP in government, whether Liberal or Conservative, could improve things at the local level. But she says it’s more critical for these people to have an MP who’s ready to fight for them and hold to account leaders who “say the right things” but fail to deliver.

And if this local race is something of a referendum on Trudeau’s work on this complicated file, Ashton suggests she is comfortable with those terms. 

She also notes, several times, that she is from Thompson and that she is raising her twin boys in that town. To understand the riding, she suggests, you have to live it. You must know how many hours it takes on the road to get from one place to the next, you have to feel the grit of those people demanding better.

“I believe that if you’re going to fight for northern Manitoba, you have to live in the riding.”

***

Jennifer Lett and her husband, Joseph, haul water from Assean Lake at least twice a week, filling three to five pails each time. It’s what she uses for cooking and for drinking, including the Kool-Aid she mixes for the teenage grandsons, 18-year-old Jordan and 16-year-old Jonah, who live in her modest, three-bedroom home on the Tataskweyak Cree Nation.

Lett, 61, also makes a trip to Thompson once a week where she buys two cases of water from Wal-Mart. It’s much cheaper there, she explains, and the boys prefer it.

She uses what comes from her tap only for bathing, laundry, and some cleaning up around her place. 

“It looks clear but it’s not good to drink,” she explains. “It doesn’t taste right. It tastes mouldy… or [of] too much chlorine.”

Once she made the boys Kraft Dinner with tap water and they could tell right away that something was off. 

“They said the water tasted funny. I don’t know how that goes, but they noticed a difference.”

She’d rather make the trip to a nearby lake because she knows the water is safe, but she realizes that not many take the trouble to do so these days.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Jennifer Lett is shown in her home on Tataskweyak Cree Nation on Aug. 21, 2019.

“These younger generations, I don’t think they want to haul water, you know? But we’re used to it. We were brought up that way,” she says. “Went down by the river to get water. It used to be good, but not now.” 

Better drinking water is her top election issue, though she knows “the land will never be the same as it was before.”

Lett agrees that Split Lake has changed in the four decades she’s lived in this community. Where once it was clear and pristine, now it’s “slimy looking,” she says, and sometimes green.

She cuts a stoic figure but it’s clear she’s worried about the kind of future her boys will have here.

“They survive out on the land. They’re hunters and they’re trappers, too,” she says, fighting tears.

We ask if she’s hoping they’ll stay in this community. She isn’t sure they’ll have any other choice.

‘... taken more and more of our culture away’

Spence — the band councillor — tells HuffPost there’s a sense here that things are slipping away. It’s supposed to be a dry reserve, but booze and drugs find their way into this community. On this very day, riding along on his ATV, Spence busts some young men snorting coke in their car.

And the floods and changing waters have led to shoreline erosion that has “taken more and more of our culture away.”

Nathan Neckoway, another band councillor, says the erosion on the shoreline has affected areas where members are buried. The remains of bones have washed ashore in a community downriver and “that’s really kind of putting a lot of frustration and sadness among the families.”

He says the “dirty water” is jeopardizing the First Nation’s emphasis on traditional ways of life, including fishing, trapping, and hunting.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Tataskweyak Cree Nation band councillor Nathan Neckoway is shown on Aug. 21, 2019.

Neckoway says that First Nations communities in the north, from East to West, are the “only areas you see unhealthy water” and boil-water advisories.

“The farther north you are, as a First Nation, you’re basically in the position of being neglected, in a position of being forgotten, and in a position of being not supported,” he says. “So, that’s basically where we stand in our community of Tataskweyak.”

People often say they sympathize with the problem, Spence says, but he feels one can’t truly sympathize without suffering, too.

“They’ve never, not one day, ever suffered with all that’s gone on around here.” 

He calls Split Lake the “toilet bowl of the north.” In recent years, Spence says, both he and his father-in-law came down with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterial infection that affects the stomach. 

“Our people have always wanted … a new source of safer, clean drinking water, going back to the time of our elders that have long gone before us already,” Spence says. “Now, we’re left to echo the same message that they carried for that time to this time.” 

Remain kind, always, and be First Nations first.Advice given to Tory candidate Cyara Bird

 

Martine Stevens, a communications officer at Indigenous Services, tells HuffPost in an email that although ongoing department test results show the drinking water is safe to consume, “Tataskweyak has not lifted their advisory, citing continued concerns with the drinking water.”

She says the department is “working closely” to address the First Nation’s concerns, but notes recent upgrades to the treatment plant included “installation of ultraviolet disinfection equipment.”

James Wavey, the water treatment plant manager on reserve, agrees the water is safe. He also agrees, however, with the band council’s push for a new treatment plant to better detect chemicals and metal.

Spence says the reserve doesn’t want to lift the advisory without a new source of clean water. “Our people have always been a people of drinking right from the source,” he says.

“How is one plant, that is a standard plant compared to today’s water treatment plants, how are we going to rely off that?” Neckoway asks.

***

“Remain kind, always, and be First Nations first.” 

That’s the best piece of advice Conservative candidate Cyara Bird says she received before jumping into politics years before she intended. 

“On a spiritual level, I heard a voice say that said my people need me now,” she explains during a visit to Paint Lake Lodge, just south of Thompson, a popular and idyllic spot for walleye fishing.

Bird, almost 23, proudly shows off her beautiful daughter, Wrenley, who was born in February. Her first daughter, Wya, is almost three. The Cree woman is raising them both with her husband on reserve at the Little Black River First Nation.

She grew up in the “conservative town” of Whitemouth, where she struggled with depression and addiction issues. She was homeless for a few months not long after she turned 18.

“That is a huge part of my journey,” she says, “and I’m never going to be afraid to share that, because I know there are many Canadians in this riding and throughout the rest of Canada that are dealing with the same kind of issues.”

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Cyara Bird, the Conservative candidate in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, is shown at Paint Lake Provincial Park in Manitoba on Aug. 22, 2019.

Bird had planned to run in 2023 but decided to jump in earlier because, in her view, things aren’t getting better for Indigenous people. 

“When you tell Canadians that there are other Canadians in this country who do not have access to clean drinking water, they don’t believe me,” she says.

Bird says that for several weeks after Wrenley was born, there was no water coming through her pipes on band housing. Though the chief made sure people had bottled water and jugs, it was a particularly hard time for a woman recovering from childbirth.

“In order for Canadians to understand that, I would challenge them to go without water for one day. It’s amazing how many times we reach for that tap and expect it to come out, and it doesn’t come out.”

Bird says she won’t drink the water at her house because, with the number of pipeline breaks the community has seen, she doesn’t trust it. She says that reconciliation means Indigenous people not going without the things they need, including water and adequate housing, she says.

“Reconciliation is moving forward and understanding each other,” she says. “In our teachings, kindness is one of them. So, in order for us to be kind to one another, we need to understand each other.”

She agrees that a young, Indigenous woman is not necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when one imagines a Conservative, but says she is one of several young female Tory candidates who are stepping up to run for the party.

Watch: Federal leaders spar over Indigenous issues at first debate

 

Like Klassen, Bird is pitching that it is time for a local MP who is actually serving in a government. While Ashton has good intentions, she says, the best she can do is speak loudly and hope to be heard.

“It’s very likely that Andrew Scheer will get elected. And it is very important that we have someone that is Conservative in there to tell him … what needs to change in this riding.”

The work the Liberals have done are steps forward, she says, “but it’s not enough.” 

Asked about the last Tory government’s rocky relationship with First Nations, Bird says she does not believe the accusations that Scheer would cut funding for Indigenous people.

“I think he’s committed to helping our people. I believe it 100 per cent.”

She’s come to know the Tory leader in recent months. She says her older daughter will yell out “Andrew Scheer!” when they watch question period on CPAC. At a recent event in Kenora, Wya jumped in Scheer’s arms and the Tory leader, a father of five, sang her the theme song to the “Bubble Guppies.”

“It just really spoke for his character,” she says.

And at the summer wedding of Alberta Tory MP Michelle Rempel, someone whom Bird now sees as a mentor, a fussy Wrenley was comforted by Scheer and his wife, Jill.

Looking out on Paint Lake, Bird says this riding is so beautiful because everywhere feels like home and “everyone treats you like you’re family.”

An eagle flies overhead. It’s a blessing in her culture, she explains. And when the interview ends, she offers a hug.

***

Two other contentious issues surfaced in the months before HuffPost’s visit to northern Manitoba: the removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal caucus and a national inquiry’s finding that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.

Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous leader who was named attorney general and justice minister in 2015, alleged that she faced improper pressure from Trudeau and his staff to help halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering giant.

“I come from a long line of matriarchs, and I’m a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our big house,” Wilson-Raybould told the House justice committee in bombshell testimony last February. “This is who I am, and this is who I always will be.”

For Ashton, the casting aside of Wilson-Raybould — “a respected Indigenous leader in not just British Columbia but across the country” — spoke volumes about how Indigenous people are listened to by governing Liberals.

Bird thinks that while it’s the “general opinion of every Canadian” that Wilson-Raybould was treated unfairly, she doesn’t expect it to be a big issue in the local campaign.

Watch: Jody Wilson-Raybould says she faced ‘veiled threats’ over SNC-Lavalin

 

Klassen, the Liberal, concedes she is hearing about it at certain doors. And in First Nations communities where there is a lot of support for the woman now sometimes called “JWR,” Klassen says: What about Judy K?

“[Wilson-Raybould] left footsteps. And I want to continue on her footsteps,” she says. “We need to move forward. We have this momentum and we don’t want to stop.”

Yet she also suggests that the personal fallout between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould will mean that candidates like her have to overcome new obstacles.

“I do know that as an Indigenous woman, I’m probably going to have to try a little bit extra harder to make them trust me,” she says. “There was a breach of trust.”

In June, the conclusion of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) presented another point of differentiation. 

Trudeau said he accepted the commission’s findings, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made it clear he supported the use of the genocide label. Scheer, meanwhile, said the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls “does not fall into that category” of genocide.

Ashton says it is “outrageous” that Scheer or any other leader could disagree with using the conclusion. “If you don’t know what the problem is or if you can’t make it clear what the problem is, you can’t come up with a right solution,” she says.

But Bird agrees with the Conservative leader.

“When we look at the things that happened to our people, like the day schools and the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, that was genocide,” she says. “What’s happening right now is far worse. It is continued ignorance from everybody. These girls are going missing, and no one’s doing anything about it.” 

Klassen suggests the debate over the use of the word misses the point. As a “bread and butter” politician, Klassen says, she has sat around the tables with mothers, fathers, and sisters who have lost women in their families.

“And that’s not their primary concern… what to term it,” she says. “Their primary concern is how to address the issue.”

 

Back on the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Melvin Cook is explaining why he’s wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs hat. Cook says he became a fan as a boy at his residential school in Dauphin. 

The kids were allowed to watch hockey, and back in the days when there were only six NHL teams, the Leafs became his favourite.

Cook was removed from his home at age six, sent away from his parents to learn to speak English, read, and in his words, become less First Nation.

“At the beginning, it was very lonely. You grew up, six years of your life, with mom and dad. And then to be removed from home and to be placed somewhere else… that was a lonely first couple of years.”

He’d go on to become an educator, including to the children on this reserve. He’d forgive the man who physically abused him, despite the anger and mistrust he carried with him into adulthood. Others, he says, “marinate” in hate from the generational trauma of that system.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Melvin Cook is shown on Tataskweyak Cree Nation on Aug. 21, 2019.

Reconciliation, the 63-year-old says, is about moving in the direction of forgiveness. Any government serious about the project must ensure that the needs of communities such as his are met, he says.

“Then you have true health, not only in your mind but in your body and in your emotions and in your spirit,” he says. “That’s reconciliation. Governments need to know that. They need to feel the impact of that.”

Cook extends that sense of grace when this visiting reporter carelessly circles back to double-check on the exact age that he left his parents.

“I didn’t leave. I was taken,” he says. “That’s the difference.”

An apology is offered and accepted. And life goes on.

This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.