Housing, mental health and addictions and community-based services were among the priorities First Nations chiefs shared with leaders of Ontario’s Liberal, New Democrat and Green parties on Wednesday.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, who is currently the premier, didn’t attend the virtual meeting with the Chiefs of Ontario that was held ahead of the expected June election due to an unplanned dental procedure, his office said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca of the Liberals were both asked how many of the 22,000 homes they have promised to provide to Indigenous people would be on-reserve.
Horwath said her party would be open to providing additional on-reserve housing based on community needs and Del Duca said the 22,000 units would be off-reserve, with costing details to come.
Caldwell First Nation Chief Mary Duckworth raised concerns in the meeting about members “couch surfing” on and off reserve, and Hiawatha First Nation Chief Laurie Carr noted that more than 160 families are on a waitlist for housing in her community.
Duckworth also raised mental health and addictions, saying people can’t access those services in her community due to a lack of funding and other roadblocks.
Horwath said her party is planning to ensure there are culturally appropriate services available for people and professionals trained to work in communities, and Duckworth in response noted that more direct access to health money might help find better solutions.
“I think the funds would do us better to create exactly what you’re trying to create, and we could do it within our territories and with their other First Nation partners,” Duckworth said.
Others raised challenges specific to accessing services in the province’s north, where speakers said there are not enough spaces for people’s needs and insufficient detox spaces for youth who are looking to enter treatment.
Del Duca was asked about his position on economic reconciliation.
He said he hopes to change things from how they were done during his time as a minister in former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government. At that time, he said the economic benefits for communities, in particular First Nations, were not often considered when planning infrastructure projects.
The former Liberal transportation minister also said he’s open to discussing exemptions for First Nations people from tolls on Highway 407.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said he would support separating the cabinet portfolios of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, after it was raised that the two ministries “are in conflict with each other.”
Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare asked that the party leaders have a First Nations person in their cabinet if they are elected on June 2.
“We need a voice with the government,” he said.
Hare also called for special attention to the “pandemic” of mental health in First Nations communities and reasonable timelines for housing projects.
Before the meeting, Hare and the Chiefs of Ontario urged the next government in a statement to recognize First Nations’ treaty-protected rights.
Priority areas highlighted in that previous statement from the chiefs were renewed relationships, sustainable community development and environmental protection, health and emergency preparedness, community well-being and investigations into human remains at Indian Residential School sites.
Participants in the meeting asked about the possibility of speaking with Ford at a later date before the election.