After 10 oppressive years under Stephen Harper Conservatives, the long-awaited change in government brought a collective sigh of relief from most Indigenous peoples in Canada. Justin Trudeau’s many pre-election promises to Indigenous peoples represented a drastic departure from Harper’s racist, assimilatory agenda. Trudeau even inspired Indigenous people who normally don’t vote in federal elections. The result of these and core promises related to the environment, democracy and accountability was a Liberal majority.
Trudeau promised Indigenous peoples would have a “veto” on all development on our lands. He also promised: (1) a national inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, (2) to lift the two-per-cent cap on First Nation funding for social programs, (3) increase funds for First Nation education, including $200 million for post-second- ary education, (4) implement all the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action — starting with the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); and (5) review and repeal (in partnership with First Nations) all of legislation imposed on First Nations by Harper — including part of the Bill C-51 anti-terror legislation.
Many Indigenous peoples were cautiously optimistic about the new Liberal government and Trudeau’s sincerity — but an equal number were highly skeptical. As if sensing this skepticism, he attended the Chiefs in Assembly meeting in December 2015 to reconfirm his election commitments and gave them “his word” that he’d live up to them. His mandate letters to his cabinet ministers included his commitment that: “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to- nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.”
Despite this, very little substantive work has been done on these commitments. The Speech from the Throne was missing the nation-to-nation and rights language and relegated us to interest groups. His first budget was an illusion. Hailed as a historic budget for Indigenous peoples, more than one third of the money would not flow until after the next election. Much of the funding would remain far below what provincial residents receive and the two-percent funding cap remains firmly in place. Even more telling is that there wasn’t a single budget line to accompany the massive work needed to implement UNDRIP, the TRC Calls to Action or legislative review.
In recent months, we have seen more substantive promises broken. His commitment to implement UNDRIP was shattered when Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould said that it would be “unwork- able,” “simplistic” and a “distraction” from other work. Her focus would be on the Indian Act — not a good sign. Trudeau’s promise that Indigenous peoples would have a veto on all land development was broken when he approved the massive Pacific North- west LNG pipeline.
The much-referenced nation-to-nation relationship has also failed to materialize. Trudeau’s government instead focuses all their discussions with three national Aboriginal organizations and not First Nations — the actual rights holders. We no longer hear discussion about Aboriginal, treaty and title rights except in court. Trudeau rejected the AFN’s call to have constitutional talks to better define First Nation rights and the nation-to-nation relationship — calling such discussions “squabbles.”
While Trudeau did ensure that work on the national inquiry began early on in his term, the actual creation of the inquiry was delayed, Indigenous peoples were excluded from drafting the terms of reference or choosing the commissioners. While a big flashy announcement was made in the fall of 2016 to start the inquiry, it still hasn’t started and likley won’t until spring 2017. With a limited twoyear mandate, the loss of six months could significantly impact the effectiveness of such an important inquiry.
We gave Trudeau’s government more than a year to put some good faith on the table. Instead, we see a lot of talk but very little substantive action on the matters that matter most to us. If our right to free, informed and prior consent before development on our lands is not respected, that is the equivalent of breaching our Aboriginal, treaty and title rights. If he can ignore multiple court orders to stop discriminating against our children in care, how does that make him any different from Harper?
In 2017, Trudeau needs to act quickly to implement his most substantive promises or he risks inspiring Idle No More 2.0; and, if the recent Treaty Alliance to resist pipelines is any indication, it has already started.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, Canada. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (Short Change).