OTTAWA — National protests sparked by the opposition of some Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to a pipeline project in B.C. are also sparking debate in Conservative circles about the party's own relationship to Indigenous communities.
Though the main focus is on resolving the current conflict, Conservatives need to start thinking about how they'll lay groundwork for a relationship when their party next comes to power, said Jamie Schmale, the party's Crown-Indigenous Relations critic.
"For me, and others within the caucus, they do see an opportunity to have a bigger conversation about First Nations and how we can all prosper together," he said.
Earlier this year, Schmale invited several Indigenous leaders to brief Conservative MPs and senators ahead of the return of the House of Commons for the winter session, as part of a chance to begin a dialogue.
He acknowledged tensions between his party and Indigenous groups have simmered for years. Current leader Andrew Scheer was once booed by First Nations chiefs for failing to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Stephen Harper.
With the Conservative leadership race underway, Schmale said he is looking for what candidates have to offer on the file.
"The next conversation needs to be where do we go from here, how do we provide off ramps to those communities that want to get away from the Indian Act," he said.
"How do we have a financial conversation with these communities that want to go their own way in certain aspects, with the pipelines or contribution agreements."
One candidate, Marilyn Gladu, has already offered up some policy.
So far, Gladu is promising that as prime minister, she'd work with Indigenous leaders to set a timeline to resolve outstanding treaty disputes, and measure the implementation of recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
She also promises to eliminate Indigenous child poverty by 2035, and all boil water advisories on reserve by 2025.
The Liberals have promised to end all long-term advisories by next year, one of many pledges they made to First Nations during the 2015 election campaign.
Their commitments followed years of mixed results by the Harper government.
Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the residential school system, and launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But also under his government, frustrations within First Nations communities resulted in the launch of the national protest movement Idle No More, echoes of which continue to be heard in the current national protests.
In the Harper government at the time — Peter MacKay.
Now running for Conservative leadership, he was justice minister when the government refused to hold an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, saying dozens of studies had already been completed. MacKay infamously tried to prove the point by tossing reams of paper onto the floor of the House of Commons.
Last week at an event in Thunder Bay, Ont., MacKay was greeted by protesters accusing him of anti-Indigenous rhetoric.
He had suggested on Twitter that people who dismantled a blockade in Alberta set up in support of the Wet'suwet'en had done more for the economy than Trudeau.
MacKay told reporters he stood by his comments, despite having deleted the tweet. He said, however, he is meeting with Indigenous leaders as part of his campaign.
Another candidate, Erin O'Toole, has advanced the idea that those blocking critical infrastructure ought to be deemed terrorists, and treated more harshly by the law.
His tone has been adopted by some Tories in the House of Commons, where current leader Andrew Scheer has been thunderously demanding a stronger police response.
Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist who worked on Indigenous files during his years in government, said such statements don't help the problem or the party.
"This click bait rhetoric, it's appalling and it belies a lack of leadership and maturity on the complexity of the issues at hand related to Indigenous-Canadian relations," he said.
"In the short term it may drive up your poll numbers, but it's going to do shag all for the country."
For voters to take the Conservatives seriously, the party will need to do better, Powers said.
One place they could look for ideas is the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, launched in 1991 under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
The final report contains many ideas for how to more positively structure the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous communities, Powers said.
"If resource development and economic development is a priority of the Conservatives, which it is, then that also means you have to have an evolving approach when it comes to Indigenous policy," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 2, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press