On September 21, Justin Trudeau addressed the United Nations in New York. It was, by all accounts, a historic speech. For the first time, a Canadian prime minister devoted the bulk of his UN address to Indigenous issues. Trudeau’s words were powerful, even hopeful, about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples — a welcome departure from former prime minister Harper’s neglect of Indigenous issues and blatant denials of colonization. But as with all forked tongue speeches, Trudeau relayed two very different messages at the same time.
A former drama teacher, Trudeau knew exactly where to place positive, even buoyant emphasis in his speech and when to lower his voice to stress the solemn nature of what has happened to First Nations throughout Canada’s history. His emotive speech garnered much applause and even a standing ovation. Most media commentators were initially positive. However, just as the most beautiful flowers on earth can be poisonous, so too are the hidden messages which lie beneath Trudeau’s speech.
With each sentence lamenting Canada’s colonial past and the degradation, neglect and abuse suffered by Indigenous peoples, he cast himself further and further from responsibility for conditions today. He spoke of events in the far-off past and the abuses that occurred in residential schools as dark chapters in Canada’s story and of their terrible legacy. What he failed to mention is that THIS government, HIS government — together with all of the modern federal, provincial and territorial governments — is responsible for the current conditions in First Nations.
Trudeau made a concerted, albeit sly, effort to historicize responsibility; but as he spoke, his efforts to skirt around his own government’s culpability became all too obvious. He condemned the neglect of First Nations in the past while ignoring neglect by his own government in the present. The evidence he used to bolster his claim that things have changed included resolving several dozen boil water advisories in First Nations. What he failed to mention was that there are over 140 boil water advisories in Canada — more than when he started — not even including B.C., Yukon and the N.W.T.
He also tried to highlight his commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals specific to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Yet his government’s actions in Canada speak louder than his deceptive words at the UN. On June 21, 2017, National Aboriginal Day, Trudeau’s government stood up in the House and voted against gender equality for First Nation women and girls in the Indian Act. His government continues to work against a unanimous Senate, the majority of Indigenous and legal experts and even the UN’s own reports advising Canada to finally rid the Indian Act of gender discrimination. At the same time, his government refuses to reset the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, which has been plagued with problems mostly due to a lack of leadership on his part.
Admittedly, Trudeau’s speech would pull at the heartstrings of many countries and Canadians at home – so long as they don’t know the facts. His call to end poverty and ensure everyone, including First Nations, has the benefit of safe communities, housing, education, healthcare and jobs is counter to his actions since taking office two years ago. His government’s refusal to abide by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s decision and subsequent orders to end discrimination against First Nations children in foster care caused alarm at the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which called on Canada to abide by its own human rights laws. Yet this government continues to knowingly discriminate against First Nations children in terms of funding for foster care, education, healthcare and mental health services such as suicide-prevention.
While Trudeau’s speech ignored his actions at home, the most offensive part was holding up First Nation suffering as a prop to bolster his desire for a seat on the UN Security Council. Canada has a great deal to account for and other countries are starting to take note of its hypocrisy. Canada is before no fewer than four UN treaty bodies for “grave,” “alarming” and “crisis-level” human rights violations of Indigenous peoples, including land rights, treaties and self-determination.
If he truly meant that there is no more important relationship than the one with Indigenous peoples, he could start now by resetting the national inquiry, ending gender discrimination in the Indian Act and abiding by the CHRT decision for First Nation children in care. This would be the necessary sign of good faith.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. 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 Autumn-Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (The ‘Sharing Economy’).