HALIFAX—When it comes to the federal government, the lesson for Indigenous peoples in Canada is surely this: the more heated the rhetoric, the more splendid the ceremony, the emptier the words.
A lot of observers think that one of the great electoral advantages held by Justin Trudeau over the Conservatives is the Indigenous peoples file. This advantage was supposedly on full display in all the recent razzmatazz surrounding the release of the final report of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
Admittedly, the release was impressive. Billboard coverage by the national broadcaster, a media frenzy in the nation’s newspapers, and the prime minister of Canada giving his “word” that the recommendations in the report will not gather dust on some bureaucratic government shelf.
At some levels, the 1,071-page report pulled no punches. It claims that the policies of federal and provincial governments towards Indigenous Peoples were not just racist, but genocidal. In the wake of the $92-million report, pressure is building on all political parties, but especially on the Liberals, to come through with platforms in the 2019 election detailing what they will do about the inquiry’s findings and recommendations.
The authors want a national action plan, and a policy to deal with violence against Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people. They call for a National Indigenous and Human Rights Ombudsperson, and annual reports to Parliament on the implementation of the inquiry’s demand for “justice.” It is a hopeful cry for long overdue action to recognize the value and improve the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people.
The problem is that white politicians have been wearing out the patience of this same group for a very long time. Indigenous people keep waiting for governments to live up to their words. Without reference to any particular political party, Ottawa’s collective record on this file is dismal; full of apologies, full of resolve, and full of business as usual or broken promises.
Indigenous peoples have been cast as extras in the political equivalent of Ground Hog Day, living out the same story over and over again. In the report that bore his name, anthropologist Harry Hawthorne reported to the federal government back in the 1960s that Indigenous people in this country were “citizens minus.” They still are. Why?
Back then, there was a Trudeau government too—led by Pierre Trudeau. In 1969, the Liberals put out a white paper purporting to fix the perennial inequalities facing Indigenous people on a host of issues; from education, to child mortality.
But the Trudeau senior’s blueprint for change was an exercise in removing the question, rather than answering it. The government would end the special legal relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples; Indian “status” would disappear; Indian Affairs would be abolished after five years; and Canada’s original occupants would miraculously become the “equal” of all other Canadians.
The idea went over like a pipeline proposal through a sacred burial ground. The late Harold Cardinal, a Cree political leader and writer, insisted on behalf of his people that Indigenous people have “the right to be the red tile in the Canadian mosaic.” As for the Trudeau government’s white paper, this is what Cardinal had to say: “In spite of all the government’s attempts to convince Indians to accept the white paper, their efforts will fail, because Indians understand that the path outlined by the Department of Indian Affairs, through its mouthpiece, the Honourable Jean Chrétien, leads directly to cultural genocide.”
That was said almost 50 years ago. As Canadians found out with the release of the MMIWG inquiry’s report, that dreaded word echoes to this day.
The battle for cultural survival looked like it might be turning in favour of Indigenous peoples in 1983. That was the year that Liberal MP Keith Penner released the report that bears his name.
The parliamentary committee he chaired concluded that Canada’s Indigenous peoples did not want to be represented in places like Parliament, but desired to call their own shots. Penner recommended self-government. His report was buried in dust—and provincial government objections, after the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1984.
Great expectations were again raised in Indigenous communities with the massive Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples— the 4,000 page tome published in 1996. But after causing an informational blip on the country’s cultural radar, it too faded into the fog without bringing about essential policy changes.
Then came the emotional punch of the Truth and Reconciliation report, which produced 10 volumes of information after 300 days of public hearings and 7,000 recorded statements from survivors of the infamous Indian Residential Schools. Former commissioner Marie Wilson had this to say to the Senate when the report was unveiled: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s aboriginal policy were to eliminate aboriginal governments, ignore aboriginal rights, terminate the Treaties, and through a process of elimination, cause aboriginal peoples to cease to exist. Land is seized, populations are forcibly transferred, and their movement is restrained.”
Though Justin Trudeau has rhetorically bested the Conservatives on the Indigenous file, his actions have belied his claim that there is “no relationship more important” to Canada than this one. These days it looks more like SNC-Lavalin has his heart.
More than that, it is questionable whether Trudeau’s noble words following the release of the MMIWG report will be believed. The issue is what his “word” means, not the words he uses to touch all the rhetorical bases.
To be sure, there have been some successes for the Trudeau government on this file, including the fact that since 2015 nearly 80 boiled water advisories have been lifted, leaving some 62 communities still in need of help.
And there is no question that the Liberals have been an improvement on a Conservative government that treated Canada’s Indigenous peoples dilemma like gum on its shoe.
But the Liberals can’t maintain the trust of Indigenous peoples simply by being better than a party that had no time for them.
By that measure, Justin Trudeau has failed. That was never more apparent than when fourteen First Nations people were recently arrested by the RCMP so that construction workers could get to their work site in Wet’suwet’en territory and continue building a natural gas pipeline. In this B.C. case, Trudeau spoke up for the rule of law, not native rights.
The irony is this: Trudeau’s greatest appeal to Indigenous people was that he promised to do things differently. That is one of the principal reasons a reluctant Jody Wilson-Raybould decided to enter national politics.
Up until then, Wilson-Raybould had never been a member of a political party. The transformational change that she believed the PM would bring largely turned into the colonial status quo she had fought as a regional chief in British Columbia.
Nor does it help Trudeau, the avowed feminist and Indigenous rights’ supporter, that Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister and attorney general had to resign from cabinet rather than suffer improper interference from the PM and his office in the SNC-Lavalin criminal case. A judge has now confirmed Wilson-Raybould’s position that the gravity of the company’s offences justified a criminal trial, not a sweetheart deal.
Transformational change for Canada’s Indigenous people is many things. But the foundation of all it is something that Ottawa has never acted on: the timely and just settlement of land claims, the so-called “title” issue; and the extension of the full set of rights to Indigenous peoples, including self-governance, as guaranteed in Sec. 35 of the Constitution.
Study as a form of action is no longer marketable on this immense and shameful problem.
No more inquiries are needed to redress the monstrous injustices against Indigenous peoples that have been laid out for all to see. The honour of the crown must be found some place other than the courts, as former PM Paul Martin once lamented. It would be nice if that place could be the federal government. Extending justice to Canada’s Indigenous people doesn’t require a manager. It cries out for a leader.
Despite all the ballyhoo, that person has yet to emerge.
Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and author.
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