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Justin Trudeau is projected to win a minority. Here’s what that could mean for Indigenous peoples

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Chief Cadmus Delorme watch dancers during a ceremony celebrating the signing of a transfer of control over children in care to the community, in Cowessess First Nation, Sask., Tuesday, July 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is projected to form a minority government after Monday night’s snap election, putting the Liberal Party back at the helm in Ottawa for the sixth year running.

The incumbent prime minister has often said, “no relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples,” but Indigenous leaders across the country have criticized the lack of attention reconciliation received during the campaign.

Nevertheless, some experts predict Monday night’s result represents a “turning point” in the federal government’s path forward with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Read more: What does the Liberal election platform promise on Indigenous issues? Here’s what we know

The discovery of mass unmarked graves at former residential schools sites in B.C. and Saskatchewan prompted immediate action from the Trudeau government, said Indigenous policy analyst Russ Diabo, and he predicts that momentum will continue within the party.

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“Prime Minister Trudeau, in one day he announced an Indigenous governor general, flew to Saskatchewan to visit the Cowessess mass grave site, and signed a child and family services agreement with the Cowessess,” he explained.

“Then his government, the same day, signed an agreement with the Manitoba Métis Federation. So (he) managed to cover off three classes of Indigenous Peoples in one day…. You know, it is kind of a turning point.”

A re-elected Liberal government has promised to “confront the legacy of residential schools” by appointing a special interlocutor to work with Indigenous communities and governments on a regulatory framework that will “advance justice” related to undocumented graves and burial sites.

Trudeau has also promised to fund searches for communities who want them, as well as accelerate implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and his government’s action plan for ending violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit peoples.

No new timelines or dollar figures were announced for those causes during the campaign.

Since 2015, the Liberals have kept some promises and broken others, but Diabo said they haven’t implemented the structural reform Indigenous advocates have been calling for.

The Trudeau government has not replaced the systems of power that reinforce poverty in Indigenous communities across the country, he explained, but rather, split Indigenous affairs into two different departments “without consultation.”

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Diabo said Trudeau will continue to pour billions into First Nations, Inuit and Métis programming — welcomed funding — but within the same problematic, colonial systems.

“The Liberal government kind of takes the approach that they’re going to recognize collective rights, but they unilaterally define what those rights are.”

Read more: Canada election: Complete list of promises made on Indigenous reconciliation

Trudeau has committed to an Indigenous-led transition away from the Indian Act, resolving outstanding land claims, and fully implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

His platform includes “fair and equitable compensation” for those harmed by the First Nations Child and Family Services program, 3,300 new Indigenous child-care spaces, and a permanent home for the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre.

It also outlines select financial commitments, including an extra $1.4 billion for First Nations, Inuit and Métis mental health and wellness strategy, $2 billion for Indigenous housing, and “any investments necessary” to end remaining boil water advisories on reserves.

“It sounds good — if they do it,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, shortly after the platform was first announced. 

“And it’s always been the ‘if they do it’ where there’s been serious problems.”

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Blackstock lamented the lack of accountability mechanisms baked into the document, and is unsure how a re-elected Liberal government will demonstrate growth.

“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.”

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Ken Coates, a specialist in Indigenous public policy, said the Liberal leader may face a “reality check” in several ways as he tackles a list of promises “longer than your arm.”

At some point, he explained, Trudeau will have to grapple with Canada’s post-pandemic pocketbook, and the “elements of paternalism” in his historic approach to action items like boil water advisories.

“Once you get clean water, that’s only part of the solution,” Coates explained, citing a variety of infrastructure issues that have not made the Liberal campaign highlight reel.

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He added that Trudeau has tended to favour Indigenous “protesters” over Indigenous people who favour oil and gas development projects, and he will need to reconcile that — particularly as he aims to rebuild the economy.

Coates predicted First Nations, Inuit and Métis people will take a more prominent, public role in shaping policy approaches moving forward.

Read more: ‘I agree with the impatience’: Trudeau says he understands frustrations of Indigenous leaders, Afghan war vets

If he holds onto the confidence of the House of Commons, Coates said Trudeau will also have to repair a “real scar” in his relationship with Indigenous Peoples — the mistreatment of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The first Indigenous person to hold the position, she was kicked out of caucus in 2019 after a clash over how a potential criminal case against Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin should be handled.

“I think they misunderstood how important it was to Indigenous politicians and people across the country,” said Coates, Canada Research Chair at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

“If the government is really serious about sort of the long-term changes and long-term developments, they’re really going to have to focus on that personal side and getting more Indigenous people to real prominence to sort of stand beside the government in the way that Jody Wilson-Raybould did.”

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A good place to start, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), would be to include Indigenous women at the decision-making table.

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Over the years, the Liberal leader has been repeatedly criticized for failing to invite NWAC to meetings with ministers and other Indigenous organizations — something that’s of particular concern as Trudeau looks to implement his plan for ending violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

“So based on their track record and the pandemic — we can’t forget we’re also in the middle of a pandemic, which is causing other pressures — how will they hopefully become more progressive in terms of Indigenous women’s rights, in a so-called ‘feminist’ government?” asked NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx.

She and others will be watching Trudeau closely, particularly in his first 100 days back in office.

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Overall, Coates believes Indigenous Peoples will remain a “high priority” for the new government, because there’s a lot more “major, general consensus on the need for sort of a serious rethink of Indigenous policy in the country.”

Indigenous Peoples would not tolerate anything less, he added, nor would the rest of the Canadian public.

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