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Chiefs say they’re ready to listen when Poilievre addresses Assembly of First Nations

As Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre prepares to deliver a keynote speech before the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Montreal, some chiefs say he’s got their support — while others say they’re concerned about his party’s rocky relationship with Indigenous communities.

On Thursday, Poilievre will attend the AFN’s annual general assembly to deliver his speech and participate in a question-and-answer session with chiefs.

The chiefs may call on Poilievre to explain comments he made 16 years ago, when he told an Ottawa radio station that former residential school students need a stronger work ethic, not more compensation dollars.

“My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance. That’s the solution in the long run. More money will not solve it,” Poilievre said at the time.

He later apologized for his comments in the House of Commons.

In December 2022, Poilievre addressed the assembly with a video message, which received boos from some people in attendance.

WATCH | Poilievre booed by delegates at the Assembly of First Nations 

Poilievre booed by delegates at the Assembly of First Nations

In a recorded address, Leader of the Opposition Pierre Poilievre outlined his commitments to First Nations communities at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly.

Doig River First Nation Chief Trevor Makadahay told CBC News that he asked the Conservative leader about his past comments and he thinks “[Poilievre] is up for the challenge to change things for the better.”

Makadahay said Poilievre told him that he didn’t have the “full understanding of everything when he made the comments.”

Makadahay has endorsed Poilievre’s plan to let First Nations collect taxes from industrial firms operating on their land — one of his first detailed policy positions on Indigenous issues since he won the party leadership race in 2022.

AFN National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said she’s met Poilievre “a couple of times now” and the most recent meeting was “days ago.”

Woodhouse Nepinak said it’s important for Poilievre to speak to chiefs about issues Indigenous communities are facing.

“The discussions that we have to have with each other about the history of this country or the things that we’re currently facing, they’re not easy to talk about, but we’re there,” she said.

A woman with shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair, clear-rimmed glasses is pictured speaking in a sit-down interview.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said that she’s met Poilievre several times and the most recent meeting was ‘days ago.’ (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

A strained relationship

The Conservative Party has struggled to make inroads with Indigenous communities. Some delegates to the AFN meeting cited the legacy of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who led the Conservative Party for 11 years.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Woodhouse Nepinak discussed Idle No More, a widespread Indigenous-led protest movement that was triggered in part by the Jobs and Growth Act, a sweeping and controversial omnibus bill introduced in 2012 by Harper’s government.

Indigenous communities feared the bill would diminish their rights while making it easier for governments and industry to develop resources without strict environmental assessments.

Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom said that “our experience in the past hasn’t been great working with a Conservative government, so we’re a little bit worried.”

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Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree says he’d be proud to put his government’s record on reconciliation up against Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s ‘any single day of the week.’ Poilievre is scheduled to speak at the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly on Thursday in Montreal.

Tom said he wants Poilievre to go “beyond fiscal help” in the federal government’s relationship with First Nations. He added he’s not sure how the Conservative leader will be received by the chiefs when he makes his speech.

“But I think if it’s leaning toward a Conservative government, we want to hear what their intentions are. We want to hear what their priorities are,” Tom added.

Jennifer Laewetz, a policy analyst with George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, said “there’s a lot of history with the Conservative Party of Canada and there’s a lot of things that need to be mended and need to be fixed.”

Laewetz said she met Poilievre at an AFN meeting last December. She said she was “shocked that he had given me the time of day, especially as a young Indigenous person that’s not really in any position to be talking to these politicians.”

She said she’ll be listening closely to what Poilievre tells the chiefs. She added she’s “really hoping” Poilievre doesn’t rely on his signature taglines, like “axe the tax” and “stop the crime.”

“We’re going to need real action and we’re going to need to know how [a Poilievre] government is going to work,” Laewetz said.

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