ANALYSIS: On Crown-Indigenous relations, Trudeau’s ‘lofty commitments’ run into reality
It was the best of the Trudeau government.
It was the worst of the Trudeau government.
The week’s news in Crown-Indigenous relations has been a remarkable and busy one but it’s also been one which put on display all those things that fans of the Trudeau government love about the Trudeau government while simultaneously shining a light on the most frustrating aspects of the 27-month-old Liberal government.
Those who are fans of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and every poll since he took office says he continues to have millions of fans — saw the Liberal leader this week demonstrate empathy and understanding. Trudeau’s fans count on him to act from the heart and he did. Indeed, having “a good heart” was the top characteristic attributed to Trudeau in a November poll by Abacus Data. It’s what his supporters love about him.
Trudeau held a relatively long meeting Tuesday with the family and representatives of Colten Boushie, the indigenous man killed in 2016 and, according to the family, Trudeau and the other cabinet ministers they met with were welcoming and gracious.
“The meetings went well,” Jade Tootoosis would tell reporters a few hours after that meeting. Tootoosis is a cousin to Boushie. “Everyone we’ve talked to has been very engaged, respectful and took the time to hear our pain, hear our strength and hear us speak from the heart including Prime Minister Trudeau, and for that we’re very appreciative.”
Boushie family members did not come to Ottawa to talk about any appeal that might be considered in that wake of last Friday’s jury verdict that acquitted the man, Gerald Stanley, who had been accused of the second-degree murder of Boushie. The appeal decision will be made by Saskatchewan’s justice minister Don Morgan. No, the Boushie family were here to tell Trudeau and his cabinet about their loss of faith in the justice system and to encourage him to change it.
On Wednesday in the House of Commons, Trudeau acknowledged “their grief and anger, and frustration” and vowed, as he almost invariably does when confronted by Indigenous Canadians who are disillusioned and upset that “we have a responsibility to do better, to be better, to do our best to make sure that no family has to endure what they went through.” Expect, at the very least, that some changes to the way juries are selected in criminal trials will be proposed this spring.
Trudeau’s comments about the Boushie case were part of the preamble in a speech Wednesday in the House of Commons in which Trudeau announced his government would attempt an ambitious never-before-done re-set of the Crown-Indigenous relationship with the “recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights framework.” Just what this framework will look like, what legislation will be required, or what negotiations will have to be concluded before the framework is adopted, are details to be announced later.
Trudeau did describe this as “a comprehensive and far-reaching approach” and said it would require “a government-wide shift in how we do things.” The objective, he told the House Wednesday, is to essentially affirm in specific detail the rights Indigenous people were granted in general by Section 35 of the Constitution Act. (Trudeau did note, interestingly enough, that his father opposed the inclusion of delineated rights for Indigenous people when he was drawing that Act up in 1981-82 — a reminder, once again, that Trudeau fils is most definitely not Trudeau père). Since that general right was affirmed 35 years ago, indigenous groups have had to go to court time and time and time again to assert and establish specific rights.
Trudeau, on Wednesday, said one of the key goals of this framework is to set out, in law, some of those specific rights and, as a result, avoid more court cases in favour of different methods of dispute resolution.
WATCH BELOW: Trudeau delivers speech in House promising new legal framework for Indigenous people
And though Trudeau did not say so specifically, several of his ministers subsequently hinted that this new framework, if all goes as the government hopes, will make it finally feasible to cashier The Indian Act , the legislation that everyone agrees has been at the rotten heart of the colonialist, paternalistic approach to Crown-Indigenous relations since 1876 and yet which no one can agree how to replace or eliminate.
There will be difficult negotiations ahead, Trudeau warned. Dozens of stakeholders (though likely hundreds) will be involved. He hopes it will all be done before we go to the polls again in 2019. And he promises there will be no need to re-open the constitution to complete this framework.
The immediate reaction was that this kind of aspirational talk, yet again, from Trudeau was good, but that his record made it hard to take it too seriously.
Cathy McLeod, the Conservative MP from Kamloops, B.C., who is her party’s critic on Indigenous issues, responded to Trudeau’s speech by describing this framework as “a noble and important goal.”
And yet, she could not help but note, “The current Liberal government, in particular, has had significant difficulty in delivering on the lofty commitments it makes.”
And, of course, Trudeau had just made the most loftiest of all his commitments to repair the Crown-Indigenous file.
McLeod continued: “It has been unable to adhere to its own standard of openness and transparency, despite arguments to the contrary. Community members have been deprived of basic financial information by the government. It is unable to hold its leadership to account and this is not democracy. The government is on track to fall well short of some of the deadlines it set in the most recent election when it comes to promises made.”
And then Romeo Saganash, the Cree MP from northern Quebec who is the NDP’s critic for Indigenous affairs, rose to respond to Trudeau’s speech and he picked up right where McLeod had left off.
“While I appreciate the prime minister’s words today,” Saganash began, “we need to make sure that this time it is for real. One of the most unacceptable things politicians can do is to quash the hope of the most vulnerable in our society by breaking yet another promise. That cannot happen.”
As historic and important as Trudeau’s speech Wednesday may turn out to be, Saganash’s response is certainly just as important and may be as historic.
“There are many files and issues we can fix right now that we could not fix two years ago when the Liberals were elected,” Saganash said. “They were elected on those promises, yet Indigenous peoples in this country continue to face discrimination and injustice.”
While I know of no poll that has surveyed opinions about Trudeau or his government that allows us to compare how Indigenous Canadians think of him compared to non-Indigenous Canadians, I suspect there would be significant differences.
Non-Indigenous voters in our urban cores — which almost overwhelmingly voted for Trudeau in 2015 — probably like the idea that their federal government is taking the Crown-Indigenous relationship seriously or at least more seriously than Trudeau’s predecessor. I suspect they’ll be less concerned about holding Trudeau to account for any results or changes in the lives of Indigenous Canadians so long as Trudeau continues to act with “a good heart” and do so in a virtuous way.
But if you listen to Indigenous leaders, like Saganash and others, or look at how Indigenous Canadians are talking about all of this on social networks, one sees anger, frustration and disillusionment. Indigenous communities need more housing, more healthcare, and more support for education. The House of Commons committee on Indigenous affairs is learning these days about how First Nations communities are desperate for better fire protection services and insurance.
And with all these obvious needs in their communities, Indigenous Canadians see a prime minister, however well-meaning he may be, tinkering yet again with process and symbols.
“Given the promises the Liberals have already made, the prime minister should be embarrassed that the real pain the Boushie and Baptiste families are experiencing happened on his watch,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Here again, more good words, but no action plan.”
Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who has been a fierce critic of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous politicians, shrugged at Trudeau’s framework speech. “This is [the] same stuff repackaged,” she said on Twitter.
Trudeau, to his credit, is aware of the perception of his critics.
“Some see our government’s ambitious commitments with a certain degree of distrust,” he said in the House of Commons Wednesday. “If we look at how things have been done in the past, it is difficult to honestly say that such distrust is not warranted.”
To a degree, that trust is earned less with lofty speeches and more with important but incremental improvements — announcements that don’t always receive the attention that is accorded to speeches by Trudeau.
There were two of those this week. On Tuesday, for example, Ottawa said it would provide $600,000 to the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI’s Indigenous justice program, a program aimed at supporting Indigenous people in that province involved with the justice system.
And on Monday, the government announced yet another long-term drinking water advisory had lifted. This one, in place since 2004, was lifted for the Slate Falls Nation in northwestern Ontario.
And in announcing the good news for the Slate Falls Nation, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott reiterated what is arguably the most important promise the Trudeau government made in the 2015 election: that by 2021, there will be no long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems on any reserve in the country.
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