Tory MP says he’ll apologize to First Nation for ‘grossly disrespectful’ comments

By Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — A Conservative MP says he’ll apologize after facing demands that he retract comments he made last week about First Nations burning down water treatment plants because they’re frustrated with the Liberals. 

The office of Saskatchewan MP Kevin Waugh said Monday he has offered to meet with the chief of Piapot First Nation, along with elders, and tour the community. 

Chief Mark Fox issued a statement on the weekend saying they rejected Waugh’s comments as “grossly disrespectful,” calling for a formal apology and retraction of his “baseless claims.”

Waugh made the comments during debate on a First Nations water bill last week, leading to swift pushback from First Nations and the minister of Indigenous services.

“In my home province of Saskatchewan, I have seen reserves burn down water treatment plants because the Liberal government has done little or nothing,” Waugh said, directing his comments toward Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu.

He added there needs to be “education provided for people on reserve to operate these water treatment plants,” and blamed the Liberals for not doing more.

A water plant in Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation was damaged by a fire in 2019, and another in Piapot First Nation burned down in 2018.

Fox said investigations into the Piapot fire determined a propane leak as the cause. The 2019 blaze remains a mystery. 

Waugh’s office walked back his remarks a few days later, conceding he was not familiar with any specific circumstances, but stopped short of an apology. 

It wasn’t enough for Fox. 

“These statements from the MP are not only without merit, but deeply disrespectful to the people of Piapot First Nation and all First Nations committed to the stewardship of our lands and resources,” the chief said in a statement.

“They shift focus away from the actual issues we are facing regarding infrastructure and resource management, and should not be overshadowed by such ill-advised and misinformed political rhetoric.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, called on Waugh to apologize and undergo “cultural competency training.” 

“An apology is not only a gesture of accountability but also an opportunity to educate and raise awareness about the importance of cultural sensitivity,” the federation said in a statement. 

They also urged him to actively participate “in initiatives that promote First Nation inherent and treaty rights and understanding.”

Last week, Hajdu said there’s no place in the House of Commons for the kind of rhetoric she heard from Waugh — especially during debate on a bill that seeks to restore the inherent rights of First Nations.

She also said she would consult with interim government House leader Steven MacKinnon on whether they would ask Waugh to withdraw the remark, but no update on that discussion was available Monday. 

The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 34 First Nations in southern Manitoba, said last week that Waugh’s remarks reinforced harmful stereotypes about First Nations in an era of reconciliation.

The legislation that was being debated at the time is aimed at improving water quality in First Nations communities, advancing collaboration on water protection and establishing a new First Nations-led water commission.

It was tabled in December, more than a year after the federal government repealed legislation on drinking water for First Nations that dated back to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Hajdu touted the new bill as the result of immense collaboration and knowledge-sharing, though some First Nations pushed back on that claim when the legislation was introduced.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

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