Conservative Member of Parliament Ryan Leef spent time in the hot seat at a federal candidates’ forum hosted by the Council of Yukon First Nations on Tuesday evening, at one point inciting a chorus of loud boos from the audience.
Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell, NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson and Green candidate Frank de Jong joined Leef at the event. The forum was moderated by Dave Joe, a lawyer who has worked as chief negotiator for the Council of Yukon First Nations.
The candidates responded to three questions about implementing treaty agreements, making government funding available to northern First Nations, and acting on Bill S-6, which made controversial amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act.
Atkinson said an NDP government would recognize First Nations’ inherent right to self-government and would work with the Land Claims Agreements Coalition to ensure treaties are respected.
Bagnell said the Liberal Party would commit $2.6 billion to First Nations education, $500 million to First Nations education infrastructure, and $50 million annually to support First Nations post-secondary education.
“All this, except what’s going to schools on reserve, is available to Yukon First Nations,” he said.
Conservative federal funding for First Nations education has largely been earmarked for on-reserve schools, and has therefore not made its way to the Yukon.
Bagnell, Atkinson and de Jong were all adamant in their opposition to Bill S-6, and said their parties would repeal the four controversial amendments.
De Jong called the bill a “cowardly betrayal by the federal government of the multi-stakeholder process that developed under the Umbrella Final Agreement.”
For his part, Leef maintained that Bill S-6 “does not breach the treaty agreements,” but said the government is open to sitting down with Yukon First Nations and the territorial government to implement the contentious amendments.
This, however, was not what got him booed. That came later in the evening, when the floor was opened to questions from the public and someone asked about the parties’ positions on electoral reform.
“It’s not perfect, but people at least understand the system we have right now,” Leef said. “And if you change that in haste… you run a very deep risk of confusing Canadians about what it actually means when they cast a ballot.” The audience was largely unimpressed.
Bagnell said that under a Liberal government, the next election will not be first-past-the-post. De Jong suggested a preferential ballot system, where voters rank candidates, would be best for Canada. Atkinson said the NDP is committed to proportional representation.
Another question focused on the long-gun registry, an issue on which all four candidates seemed to agree. Leef, Atkinson, Bagnell, and de Jong all said they do not support the registry. Both the Liberal and NDP parties have said they will not reinstate the registry.
Leef, however, cast doubt on the Liberal and NDP commitments, reminding the audience that Bagnell voted to save the long-gun registry in 2010 after publicly criticizing it.
“It’s not credible and it’s not believable. If the Liberals come back, the long-gun registry comes back, and (Atkinson) would be put in a very difficult position because the NDP would do the exact same thing,” he said.
Leef also claimed the Conservatives are the only party that has made concrete commitments specific to the Yukon, and accused the other parties of touting federal policies that Yukoners will pay for, but not benefit from.
As examples of his party’s targeted commitments, he listed the Conservative government’s recent announcements about a Canadian Armed Forces reserve unit for the Yukon and a new cadet facility in Whitehorse.
But Leef again found himself in the minority when asked about an inquiry for missing and murdered aboriginal women. Bagnell and Atkinson both said their parties would stage an inquiry, with Atkinson pledging her party would launch an inquiry within 100 days of being elected.
Leef pointed out that he was the only Conservative MP to vote for an NDP motion to launch an inquiry, but said there’s no single solution to the problem of violence against indigenous women.
Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie, Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill, and Ta’an Kwach’an Council Chief Kristina Kane all spoke at the forum, and their message was clear: get out and vote.
“This election… is very, very crucial for Yukon First Nations going forward,” said Massie. “And we, as First Nations, are making a lot of efforts in getting our citizens to the polls.”
Bill pointed out that 25 per cent of the Yukon’s population is indigenous, and First Nations people could sway the vote in the territory if they vote in large numbers.
“I ask every First Nations citizen in the territory to get out and vote,” she said. “Vote early if you can. And assist those who need to get to the polls – your elders, your families, and your neighbours. Grab granny and go to the polls.”
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