Buffalo River Dene Nation: Aboriginal Issues Take Centre Stage
Social issues were front and centre at a candidates' forum hosted by the Dene Nation.
More than 120 citizens and party supporters turned out for the event, which was broadcast across the NWT on CKLB Radio. The forum, which was translated into two Dene languages, lasted three hours, with questions ranging from foster family problems, housing shortages, how to get youth involved in the political process and preserving Dene languages.
Noeline Villebrun, the recently announced candidate for the First Peoples National Party of Canada (FPNPC), said she would work to get the government to dutifully implement the treaties it has signed.
Candidates kept civil throughout the debate, rarely attacking each others' policies, choosing more often to speak of their own.
Villebrun, however, let her feelings be known about her fellow candidate's parties, linking the Liberals with past corruption, while stating the NDP had been inactive during their time in the North and then accusing the Conservatives of trying to "do away with treaties."
Aboriginal people make up 51 per cent of the population of the NWT, according to the 2006 Census.
Only Villebrun and Liberal candidate Gabrielle Mackenzie-Scott, the Liberal candidate, addressed the gathering in Dene languages - during their opening statements.
When asked about their positions on implementing the Kelowna Accord and signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all candidates but one said they would work to support both initiatives.
Conservative candidate Brendan Bell skirted questions on the two issues but reiterated it was his party, through Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that apologized for the history of residential schools and provided the settlement to people who went through them.
Bell said the aboriginal people he has spoken to in his visits to communities tell him they know their rights are constitutionally entrenched.
The forum, moderated by Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, featured questions from his organization, as well as from both high schools.
After a brief break, the floor was open to questions from the public. At this point, only two randomly selected candidates were able to answer these questions.
Throughout the debate, Mackenzie-Scott attempted to paint the voter's choice as being between the Conservatives and Liberals because she said they were the parties fighting it out for control of the government.
Bevington opposed Conservative tax cuts, stating that this revenue was necessary to fund social programs.
"If we don't collect the dollars, we can't invest in the things there are under the Kelowna Accord," he said.
Green Party candidate Sam Gamble reiterated his position that the remaining government responsibility for matters like resource revenue sharing should be devolved to the territory, as opposed to solely those things that cost money, like health care and housing.
"We need all the cards to play the game right," he said.
Villebrun acknowledged that, if elected, she may be the only member of her party in Parliament, but said that should not deter voters from questioning her ability to raise aboriginal issues.
"I can stand up in Parliament and I can be a reminder and I can be a thorn in Parliament's side," she said.
Reaction was mixed following the forum, with many undecideds still not sure who they would vote for, if in fact they choose to vote.
Peter Huskey had asked candidates how they would get industry to respect Impact Benefit Agreements, in terms of guaranteeing things like leave of absences for family funerals.
He said he was not entirely satisfied with what he heard from candidates.
"I expected more detailed answers," he said.
Although, in the end, he did kind of get was he looking for.
"After (the forum), they all came up and told me their answers," he said.
He added, jokingly: "all the answers were similar."