Ontario will have two new northern seats in next year's provincial election to boost Indigenous representation, though First Nation communities say one of the riding's names takes reconciliation a step backward.
Legislation passed Tuesday to create two new ridings called Kiiwetinoong and Mushkegowuk-James Bay. Kiiwetinoong is a majority Indigenous riding, while Mushkegowuk-James Bay has a population that's about one-third Indigenous and 60 per cent francophone.
First Nations representatives had told the legislative committee that it was disrespectful for Mushkegowuk to be used in the riding name with no permission from the Mushkegowuk Council.
The Mushkegowuk Council and the Nishawbe Aski Nation said in a joint submission to the committee that they were not consulted on the name and called it "misleading."
"This government's own statistics indicate that the majority of the population would be francophone, not Indigenous," they wrote. "We were led to understand that these proposed new ridings would be majority Indigenous, but examination of the population statistics shows that is not the case...Instead of giving First Nations a stronger voice, it may well diminish it, with less chance for First Nations to elect one of their own to represent their issues at Queen's Park."
The Progressive Conservatives proposed that the riding named Mushkegowuk be renamed altogether, but the majority Liberal committee added James Bay to the name and the legislation now requires the attorney general to review the name.
"I was there...at Queen's Park when Premier Kathleen Wynne issued the apology to the residential school survivors and also the statement of commitment to restoring that relationship," said Nishawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. "Even though there's been some good work that's been done to heal that relationship I'd say this is certainly a step back in those efforts."
With a little under 30 per cent of the new riding's population being Indigenous, it's "very unlikely" an Indigenous representative will be elected in that riding, he said.
Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli said the Liberals' solution to First Nation opposition to the riding name is just "doubling down on the insult."
The new ridings are being created within the current Kenora-Rainy River and Timmins-James Bay districts. Gilles Bisson, the New Democrat who represents Timmins-James Bay, said his riding would be reshaped but he is prepared to accept that.
"The best people to speak out for First Nations on issues such as youth suicide, chronic underhousing, you name it, all of the issues that they have in the Far North, are people that have lived the experience," he said.
The creation of the two new ridings came out of recommendations from a Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission, which said it believes that would lead to more effective representation for Ontarians living in the Far North, and enhanced political representation for Indigenous peoples in particular.
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi noted there will be further consultation with the communities before determining what the riding's permanent name will be.
"As we are on this journey of reconciliation to make sure that our First Nation voices are heard and they're actually part of decision making, it's important that at the most fundamental level there would be Indigenous representation," he said.