The race to crown a new federal Conservative leader is barely begun but it’s already heating up as eight contenders jostle to steer the party into the next election.
Among the frontrunners are former Quebec premier Jean Charest, longtime parliamentarian Pierre Poilievre and former Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown.
Whoever does take the reigns will need a real, viable plan for reconciliation with Indigenous people if they want to eventually lead the country, political analysts tell Nation to Nation.
“It appears Pierre Poilievre has got a commanding lead, and I think that has some people concerned,” says Saskatoon StarPhoenix columnist Doug Cuthand.
“Poilievre has made some (controversial) statements in the past and was one of the members of the Harper government that really was not very well-liked by the leadership of the First Nations or Indigenous Peoples all across Canada.”
While the contenders have been jousting and trading barbs online, they’ve rarely discussed their policies on Indigenous issues specifically.
The debate has revolved around the economy, inflation, federal budgets and who has the best plan to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Last month, Poilievre published a video following a meeting with Chief Darcy Bear celebrating Bear’s community of Whitecap Dakota First Nation’s business achievements in Saskatchewan.
“This is what is possible when we open our country up for business and opportunity and we allow First Nations to take control of their own destiny,” Poilievre declared.
“My goal is to give First Nations control of their own lands and their money so that they can pursue incredible opportunities.”
Despite being featured in the video, Bear later told The Globe and Mail he won’t endorse the leadership hopeful, and Cuthand says what that policy stance “really means is that we’re heading toward municipalization of our governments.”
Cuthand also believes promising to open up Indigenous territories for business won’t be enough to convince skeptics who remember the hard lines drawn by Harper’s Conservatives on many issues.
Almost immediately after winning power in 2006, Harper refused to honour the Kelowna Accord, a multi-billion-dollar deal brokered between Paul Martin’s Liberals and Indigenous leaders.
Harper’s Tories would later oppose the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (eventually accepting it in 2010) and ignite the Idle No More movement.
Poilievre held two different ministerial posts in Harper’s cabinet
“The Harper government left a very bad taste with Indigenous people all across the country. Poilievre, that’s a cross he’ll have to bear,” says Cuthand. “He’s going to have to carry that with him, and he’s going to have to prove he’s independent of that kind of thinking.”
But Melissa Mbarki, a policy analyst with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says Poilievre is the only one who has mentioned Indigenous people at all, making it hard to gauge where the contenders stand.
“This is something that’s going to impact Indigenous people, this is something that’s going to impact future generations,” she tells N2N. “We need somebody who’s willing to work with us, not against us.
“If we can get party members to start having these discussions, it would make the whole reconciliation process a little bit easier.”
She agrees whoever leads the party next must have a credible reconciliation platform, especially on critical issues like health care, social services and infrastructure.
“If they can’t get on board with those, then they’re going to be not the party for Indigenous people,” she says, “We just really need to get them working with us and listening to us. I think that is the first step.”
While Cuthand says the party is drifting further toward right-wing populism, particularly in the wake of the recent convoy protest during which MPs mutinied and ousted Erin O’Toole as the leader, Mbarki says that’s the wrong thing to focus on.
“We can pull on all the parties and bring different viewpoints into our self-governance, and each party can help us in a different way,” she says. “I don’t think it really has anything to do with populism.
“What we need to focus on as Indigenous leaders and as Indigenous groups is what can this party bring to Indigenous communities?”
The convention is set for Sept. 10.