Party representatives fail to engage crowd at sparsely attended Indigenous town hall

The stage at the town hall was filled, from left, by Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, PC MLA Eileen Clarke, NDP Leader Wab Kinew, Green Party Leader James Beddome and independent candidate Dave Wheeler. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Dozens of Indigenous voters spent an evening in Winnipeg hearing what the provincial parties had in store for their communities, but many came away unimpressed with what was brought to the table.

Throughout the course of the Indigenous-focused town hall at the RBC Convention Centre Friday night, the subject matter ranged from Child Family Services, to health care inequity and inadequate access to northern communities. But few of the answers seemed to deliver what people in the room wanted to hear.

“I wasn’t convinced at all by what I heard because they’re all superficial. They didn’t deal with anything at the roots of the problems that they touched upon,” said Martina Fisher, originally from Bloodvein First Nation.

The event — billed as “I’m First Nation and I Vote” — was organized by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to highlight Indigenous concerns ahead of the upcoming provincial election.

The purpose was to provide voters a chance to see what each party offered their community. Earlier in the day, CBC reported the AMC has officially endorsed the NDP and Wab Kinew.

Before the start of the town hall, a group of Indigenous people met outside the Manitoba legislative building and marched through downtown before heading over to the convention centre.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Green Party Leader James Beddome all represented their parties at the event. For the PC party, Agassiz MLA Eileen Clarke, who serves as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Relations, filled in for leader Brian Pallister. The fifth speaker was Dave Wheeler, who is running as an independent. 

Martina Fisher, a social worker from Bloodvein First Nation, said she was let down by what she heard at the Indigenous town hall. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

But if all the seats on the stage were filled, the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the room, which was only about 25 per cent full. Fisher said the sparse attendance was telling of how Indigenous people feel about provincial politics.

“First Nations are not getting involved anymore … they don’t even vote. The First Nations people are not participating because they’re not being heard,” she said.

Of the seats that were occupied, not a single one was filled by a chief from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which came as a disappointment to Fisher, especially given their position in the communities.

“They’re all in the political arena, so I don’t know why they’re not here … even our chiefs have a hard time advocating [for our issues],” she said.

The issues

Those who attended came with a range of issues they hoped would be addressed. For nurse Charmaine Delaronde, the health of her people was top of mind, as she captivated the room when she pressed the candidates about inequities in Manitoba’s health system.

“If we are to see some changes people have to really step up and be serious about working with Indigenous communities in Manitoba,” she said.

Charmaine Delaronde brought her 12-year-old son Sage to help him learn about what issues affect Indigenous people. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

A social worker by trade, Fisher said her major concerns were inter-generational trauma and allowing Indigenous people to have options to seek healing.

“They should be building healing lodges for Indian residential school survivors, so that people can go there and heal,” she said. “Native people can deal with their own issues, but [right now] they have to be referred to a therapist, doctor …we deal with things holistically.”

Sheri Cochrane said she was not surprised that PC Leader Brian Pallister was not present at the town hall. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Sheri Cochrane, from Fisher River Cree Nation, said it’s time leaders start talking about how to help Indigenous people advance, not just create Band-Aid situations.

“Rather than keep us back, move us forward in a positive way instead of tricking and fooling us. [They’re] making everything sound good, [but] there’s a lot promised and not enough delivered,” she said.

Leaders’ plans

Each speaker started the night off by discussing their plans for how they would address Indigenous-based issues.

Lamont stressed a Liberal government would be for “all Manitobans,” and better infrastructure for traveling to communities and healthcare is at the top of his list. He added that his plan would be to focus on creating a “genuine partnership” with Indigenous leaders.

With PC Leader Brian Pallister absent on the night, Clarke didn’t dive into any specifics. Instead, she said there would be initiatives released later this week that would address Indigenous people. She said she wanted the crowd to understand the relationship the party has built with Indigenous communities will go a long way, and last a long time.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said his plan is similar to his provincewide agenda of better health care, job creation and addressing the climate crisis. He said all three resonate deeply with Indigenous issues and together will help guide them to a better tomorrow.

For the Greens, Beddome said his experience with Indigenous people has helped shape his life, and his focus would be to reduce poverty in the communities and build partnerships with Indigenous-led initiatives. More importantly, he added that he would take direction from the calls to action of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Finally, Wheeler, who is running in the newly created McPhillips riding, said he would battle addictions in the province with psychedelics. He said his deep Scottish roots which are ingrained deeply in the province will help him, and he will represent his constituents’ thoughts without having to toe party lines. He mentioned his podcast three times. 

The absence of Pallister didn’t come as a surprise to many of the people attending the town hall.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s not here, because he doesn’t support First Nations people,” said Cochrane.

Fisher, on the other hand, felt that Pallister just wouldn’t know how to respond to questions from the crowd.

“He’s not for the people, why would he be here? It’s because he would answer specific questions and he’s not going to answer [them],” said Fisher. 

Indigenous leader needed

During the introductions and throughout the course of the night, Kinew received the loudest applause. 

Heading into the town hall, Cochrane had already narrowed it down to two parties she’d likely be supporting.

“I have some parties I would never vote for. I’m interested in what the NDP have to say and the Liberals,” she said.

Cochrane said the leader wouldn’t sway her vote as much as policy would, but Delaronde said if things are ever going to get better, they’ll need one of their own to fix them. 

“At the start I was leaning toward the NDP and Wab Kinew and I continue to stand with my decision,” she said. “I think we need someone from the population to speak for the population because they understand.”

Delaronde said she believes Kinew’s shared experiences with the people in attendance will be an advantage if he does become premier.

“It only makes sense, if you’re from a particular population you have a better understanding of the needs and how to address them.”

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