Erin O’Toole kicked off his first question period as Conservative leader Wednesday by pressing the Liberal government to do more to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The strategy won O’Toole praise from the prime minister he hopes to replace, who later pointedly called Conservative interest in the file a “long time coming.”
O’Toole, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and had been away from the House of Commons while isolating, was given a rousing applause from MPs when he rose from his seat. The Tory leader, whose wife has also recovered from the virus, took a moment to thank his colleagues and Canadians for the best wishes extended to his family.
Watch the exchange:
Sporting a bright orange tie to mark Orange Shirt Day, which commemorates the trauma endured by Indigenous peoples in residential schools, O’Toole accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being “all talk and no action” on reconciliation.
“Big announcements, no follow through,” O’Toole said. “Indigenous communities need the prime minister to roll up his sleeves and get down to work.”
The Tory leader asked why the government has not delivered on the 19th call to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Report into residential schools. It calls on the federal government to “establish measurable goals” to close gaps in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, from infant mortality and chronic diseases to mental health, and publish yearly progress reports.
Trudeau, who has pledged his government will fulfill all 94 calls to action in the TRC report, began by wishing O’Toole and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who also recovered from COVID-19, a welcome back to the House.
“I look forward to exchanging, particularly on the topic of reconciliation,” Trudeau said. “I think there’s an awful lot we need to do across party lines on that, whether it’s passing UNDRIP legislation, whether it’s concretely delivering for Indigenous communities across the country.
“And I’m very encouraged to see the Conservatives lead off with a very important question.”
“I’ll be very encouraged with an eventual answer,” O’Toole shot back, before repeating his question in French. Trudeau again said he was “very encouraged” by the line of questioning and said his government hopes to work with the Tories on legislation on Indigenous health care.
Liberals promised in the 2019 election to bring in legislation before the end of this year to enshrine the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in law — one of the 94 recommendations outlined in the TRC report.
The declaration calls on governments to ensure laws respect the “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being” of Indigenous peoples.
It also demands governments obtain “free and informed consent” from Indigenous groups before approving resource projects, something the Tories have previously opposed and claimed amounted to a veto. In a National Post column in February, O’Toole said he opposes adopting UNDRIP because “decades of case law and negotiations” have made Canada’s “duty to consult” Indigenous communities on resource projects “among the best in the world.”
In his platform during the Conservative leadership race, O’Toole said the future of Canada “depends on successful reconciliation and meaningful trust-building.” Among other promises, he pledged to “ensure the basic human right to clean drinking water is guaranteed for every Indigenous community in Canada.”
Conservatives also rose in question period to challenge Trudeau over the government’s pledge to eliminate all boil-water advisories on First Nations by March 2021. Government sources suggested to CBC News the deadline could be missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tory MP Gary Vidal, whose northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River includes at least two First Nations under such advisories, demanded to know when they would be lifted, “if not in 2021.” Trudeau said his government is working “extremely hard” to meet its goal but said COVID-19 challenges have brought some delays.
PM pressed on long-term drinking water advisories
“That is why we are further accelerating our efforts and working extremely hard, not to meet some deadline but to make sure that all Canadians have access to safe drinking water,” he said.
B.C. MP Cathy McLeod noted there are 61 current long-term drinking water advisories in effect in Indigenous communities. She asked how Indigenous families in such places are supposed to follow the public health advice to wash their hands frequently during the pandemic when they lack clean water.
“I have to say, on Orange Shirt Day or any day, I am extremely pleased to see the level of engagement and interest with Indigenous issues that the Conservative Party is showing,” Trudeau said. “It has been a long time coming.”
The prime minister said his government eliminated close to 90 advisories over five years and will “redouble efforts” to tackle the remainder.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh likewise pressed the Liberals on their pledge to ensure clean water for all Indigenous peoples, and also shone a light on the horrific death of Joyce Echaquan.
The 37-year-old Atikamekw woman recorded nurses making racist taunts to her Monday as she lay dying in a hospital bed in Joliette, Que. According to her family, she experienced an adverse reaction to morphine after telling nurses she was allergic to the pain medication. The province’s coroner’s office is now investigating the circumstances of her death.
When Echaquan asked for help with her last breath, she was met with ridicule, the NDP leader said.
“The last moments of your life should not have ended like this,” Singh said in French to Echaquan, before calling on Trudeau to do more to help tackle systemic racism.
Trudeau responded that Canadians were shocked by the video Echaquan recorded.
“It was the worst form of racism when she needed the most help,” he said. The prime minister urged Quebec to move quickly on an investigation, and said his own government will continue its work to eliminate systemic racism.