He was announcing the Liberal Party’s election platform, which includes an entire pillar dedicated to Indigenous issues and reconciliation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed fundamental gaps in our society. Challenges that existed before the pandemic remain and others have been exacerbated. These are especially felt by Indigenous peoples who face overcrowded housing, lack of access to health services, and systemic discrimination,” the platform said.
“Recent events have shone a light on the tragic legacy of colonialism. We must work to address these difficult issues and move forward on the path of reconciliation, together.”
Here’s what we know about the Liberal platform’s promises for Indigenous people — and what advocates have to say.
Clean drinking water
In previous elections, the Liberals promised they’d end long-term boil-water advisories. Those are advisories that have been in place for more than a year and that warn residents to boil water for at least a minute before drinking it or using it to cook.
Now, the Liberal Party is promising they’ll finish the job they didn’t get done in previous terms in Parliament.
In the platform, they say they’ll make “any investments necessary to eliminate all remaining advisories.” That promise doesn’t specify that they’d have to be long-term drinking water advisories — which is something that appeals to one advocate.
“I like the fact that they say they’re going to get rid of all water advisories,” said Pam Palmater, who is a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and activist.
“So hopefully that means that they’ll deal with the thousands of other kinds of water advisories in the lack of water on reserve.”
So far, the Liberal government has lifted 109 drinking water advisories since 2015 under Justin Trudeau. But there are still 51 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in 32 communities across Canada.
But one longtime advocate remains unconvinced by the promise.
“The water issue is one that I’m skeptical about, because what I don’t see there is accountability on the government — never in the child and family services, Jordan’s Principle and the water matters do they ever say, ‘look, we own this, we messed up,'” said Cindy Blackstock, who runs the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (Caring Society).
“It’s always some other reason external to government … and until they’re accountable for their own behaviour, they won’t learn from it.”
Racism in care
In September of last year, an Atikamekw woman recorded her final moments at a hospital in Quebec, where she experienced what Trudeau called “the worst form of racism.”
Over the course of over seven minutes, 37-year-old Joyce Echaquan can be heard calling for help from nurses who, instead of comforting her, denigrated her with racist insults. She died shortly afterward.
The Liberal platform promises to fully implement Joyce’s Principle. The principle, named after Echaquan, calls on governments to guarantee all Indigenous people the right of the right of equitable access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services. It also details their right to enjoy the best possible physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Trudeau’s Liberals would co-develop what they described as “distinctions-based Indigenous Health legislation to foster health systems free from racism and discrimination where Indigenous peoples are respected and safe.”
The Liberals also promised to fully implement Jordan’s Principle – a rule that pledges to provide First Nations children with the services they need, when they need them, rather than first taking the time to sort out which level of government is responsible for the cost.
However, the implementation of Jordan’s Principle has been a thorny issue in recent years, with both the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Caring Society taking the government to court over what they say has been a failure to implement the principle.
- Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante collapses during news conference, ‘out of danger’
- Military sees ‘significant’ spike in sexual assaults despite reform vows: StatCan
- ‘Countless’ complaints on CRA wait times are spurring a new probe
- Israel intensifies bombardment of Gaza’s 2nd largest city in new phase of conflict
This ongoing litigation erodes trust between Indigenous people and the government, according to Blackstock.
“The prime minister got up in the House of Commons and said he is not litigating against Indigenous kids. A week later we were in federal court and they were litigating against Indigenous kids,” Blackstock said.
“When the government says, ‘well, you need to trust us, Indigenous people don’t trust us.’ Well, that’s why.”
On top of these ongoing issues, more than half of the children in foster care are Indigenous, according to figures from the federal government. That’s despite Indigenous people making up just over seven per cent of the under-14 population in Canada.
The conditions that cause so many Indigenous kids to land in the child welfare system are “related to the intractable legacies of residential schools including poverty, addictions, and domestic and sexual violence,” according to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
The Liberal platform promises to keep chipping away at this problem, with promises to “continue to reform child and family services in Indigenous communities” and to “continue to work with Indigenous communities to help children and families stay together.”
The details of how they intend to do that, however, are scarce.
Legacies of residential schools
In the months leading up to the federal election, some horrific realities about residential schools came into the spotlight. In May, ground-penetrating radar found what was described as the remains of more than 200 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Shortly afterward, 751 more unmarked graves were discovered by the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan at another former residential school site.
Residential “schools” were schools in name only, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report published in 2015. Children were ripped from their homes and placed in these institutions, where they’d be systematically stripped of their culture and, in many cases, subjected to horrific abuses.
More than 38,000 of the children sent to residential schools were subjected to sexual and serious physical abuse, according to the TRC.
Now the Liberal platform has detailed its promises to try to help communities heal from the horrific history — and its present day impacts.
Just before the election was called, the Liberals committed $321 million in new funding for programs that address some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to help search burial sites at former residential schools, and to support survivors.
The Liberals said the new money will also help communities manage the sites, provide mental health, cultural and emotional services, and will help build a national monument in Ottawa honouring the victims.
The platform builds on these promises with a pledge to “provide the necessary supports for communities who wish to continue to undertake the work of burial searches at the former sites of these institutions.”
The party also says it will provide funding towards the construction of a “permanent home” for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation — though neither of these last two promises has a firm dollar figure attached.
Indigenous communities have long faced major hurdles when it comes to housing. A government analysis of housing on reserves in 2019 found “widespread” issues of “overcrowding, poor states of repair, inadequate infrastructure, as well as lack of affordability.”
The Liberals are promising to invest $2 billion in Indigenous housing, with half of that available by the summer construction period. They also say they’ll co-develop an Indigenous Urban, Rural and Northern Housing Strategy that’ll be propped up with a $300-million investment.
These promises get at a major problem, according to Palmater, who said “more money for housing (is) desperately needed on reserve.”
A few months ago, a bill became law in Canada that enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The purpose of the law is to ensure Canada’s laws align with UNDRIP.
The declaration has articles that affirm a number of rights for Indigenous Peoples, like the right to participate in decision-making that affects their interests and the right to create their own education systems.
Now the Liberals say they’ll take the implementation of this document one step further and include it in the mandate letter of every cabinet minister in a re-elected Liberal government.
This will require ministers to “implement UNDRIP,” the platform says, and “ensure their offices and ministries work alongside Indigenous peoples to advance their rights.”
“They’ve made a commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and put it in the mandate letters for all the cabinet ministers, so that that’s their marching orders, as opposed to just saying we passed legislation,” Palmater said.
“So I like that.”
And while there are quite a few aspects of the Liberal platform that looks promising to these longtime Indigenous advocates, there’s one massive question mark stopping them from actually celebrating the promises.
“It sounds good — if they do it,” said Blackstock. “And it’s always been the ‘if they do it’ where there’s been serious problems.”
Palmater echoed the hesitation.
“For Canadians, they see political promises tossed around like candy, but then not implemented after they’re elected,” she said. “And for Indigenous Peoples, we have centuries of broken promises, broken treaties, breaches of our rights. So, you know, that’s a real concern.”
Palmater added that while there are aspects of the platform she likes, such as UNDRIP being a part of ministers’ mandate letters, there are things missing that she would’ve liked to have seen. She says the platform should have more firm, Indigenous-specific action addressing the issue of violence against women and girls.
She would’ve also liked to have seen more platform points aimed at addressing the over-incarceration of Indigenous people, and more detailed plans for tackling COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.
“I kind of have mixed reviews about the platform. It looks very much like the previous platforms that they have … there’s obviously pros and cons,” she said.
For Blackstock, the major omission was accountability.
“How are they going to learn from what they’ve done? You know, when we mess up, we’re taught that we have to learn about the harm from the perspective of the person that we harmed. And then what we need to do is change our behaviour to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“Too often the government wants to offer an apology and then give the ‘let’s move on’ speech before it has held itself accountable and demonstrated that it’s learned.”
Other parties' promises
The Liberals aren’t the only ones who make major promises to Indigenous people in their election platforms.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has pledged a plan to implement all Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action. However, the Conservative Party’s platform only commits to a plan to implement six specific items that deal with the deaths of children in residential schools and the sites where they were buried.
O’Toole has also said he supports building the cancelled Northern Gateway oil pipeline, largely because it would provide some Indigenous communities with economic opportunities.
Meanwhile, the NDP have promised that if they form government, they’d appoint a special prosecutor on residential schools and demand all residential school records from institutions such as governments and churches be released.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has also said an NDP government would also work to fully implement all outstanding recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Neither the Green Party nor the Bloc Quebecois have released detailed promises to Indigenous people living in Canada.
But no matter who gets elected, Blackstock said it’s up to Canadians to fight for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Real change happens when the public forces change in the political system,” she said.
“The government itself is going to choose not to change. It needs to be forced into changing.”