09/13/2019 00:57 EDT | Updated 09/13/2019 16:18 EDT

Andrew Scheer Grilled For ‘Hold Hostage’ Comment About Indigenous Rights

The top Conservative said he doesn’t want resource projects to be held “hostage,” at the Maclean’s/Citytv national leaders debate.

TORONTO — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Thursday that his party can’t support a United Nations declaration on Indigenous rights because it could let “one group of individuals” hold resource projects “hostage.”

During the first leaders’ debate, Green Leader Elizabeth May pressed Scheer on why Conservative senators blocked a bill that would have ensured Canada’s laws to be in harmony with UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

The bill, introduced by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, was tabled three years ago and died after failing to pass the Senate in June. Saganash said the Conservative senators’ stalling of the bill amounted to “institutional bigotry.”

Scheer said Thursday that Conservatives had “very important reasons” to block Bill C-262.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, centre, speaks as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh listen during the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Sept. 12, 2019.

One provision of UNDRIP states resource projects can only go ahead if Indigenous groups give their “free, prior and informed” consent.

“That means that we would have tremendous uncertainty,” Scheer said. “It means that if some Indigenous communities want a project to proceed, they would be vetoed if there were some that were opposing.”

He later said he supported other parts of the bill.

“There are many laudable goals within this piece of legislation, many things that a Conservative government will support ... But we cannot create a system in this country where one group of individuals, one Indigenous community, can hold hostage large projects that employ so many Indigenous Canadians.”

‘No respect’

Both May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took issue with Scheer’s answer. 

“The language you are using shows no respect,” the Green leader said. 

“You can’t treat Indigenous nations as though they are an interest group or a lobby. The rights that they have in the Constitution and which we as federal leaders share a responsibility to protect … require a rootedness in territory.”

Whether certain groups support the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline or not doesn’t change the fact that the territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples would be destroyed if the project resulted in even one oil leak, May said.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks during the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Sept. 12, 2019.

Singh called Scheer’s language “incredibly disrespectful off the top.”

The NDP leader said it’s better for businesses if Indigenous nations are truly involved in decision-making and have the right to say “yes” or “no” to developments on their territory.

“Partnership is the only way forward.”

After the debate, Scheer was asked by HuffPost Canada if he regretted using the phrase “hold hostage” to describe Indigenous opposition to resource projects. He did not directly answer the question.

Partnership is the only way forward.Jagmeet Singh

“When you have a small number of people or a small number of groups who are blocking an important project that would provide thousands of jobs to Indigenous communities and all those First Nations communities who have signed partnership agreements are left out, I believe it’s important to advocate for them as well,” he said. 

“Part of respecting Indigenous rights means respecting the right to say ‘yes.’”

Singh slammed Scheer for another one of his answers on Indigenous issues earlier in the debate.

All three leaders were asked if they would accept a recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found the federal government “recklessly” underfunded child welfare services on reserves. The ruling awarded $2 billion in compensation for affected families. 

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks during the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Sept. 12, 2019.

Previous governments under Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper spent millions of dollars in court to fight earlier rulings on the matter. 

Scheer would not say whether he would accept the ruling or appeal it in court. He said that the federal government has a “unique responsibility” to Indigenous people and a Conservative government would make sure they have “the exact same opportunities that every single other Canadian has.”

A Conservative government would focus on “practical things that can alleviate the present challenges that are facing Indigenous Canadians,” he said, listing examples like creating jobs and ending boil-water advisories on reserves.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photo before the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on September 12, 2019.

Singh said Scheer’s answer on the court ruling was “not surprising” but still “appalling.”

A federal NDP government would never fight such a ruling, Singh said.

“I want to make it very clear: Yes, a New Democratic government would accept the ruling,” he said. “At a minimum, we shouldn’t be taking Indigenous kids to court.”

May also said she would accept the ruling. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did not attend the debate, which was hosted by Maclean’s and CityTV in Toronto.

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