Indigenous Rights: Justin Trudeau’s Elephant in the Room


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As Liberal Party leader and Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has charmed the Western world. His ability to take a good selfie and add gender balance to his cabinet combine to present him as a modern man with a progressive plan of action.

But as Canada’s indigenous sovereignty movement, Idle No More, have argued, ‘the Trudeau government has made a portfolio of photo opportunities and handshakes, and that is all that is happening for our people.’

Clinching the election thanks to a rise in indigenous Canadian voters, Trudeau promised the Native community ‘Nation to Nation’ pledges of reform, equality and respect in federal Canadian politics. Yet, a year into his presidency, Trudeau is proving to have as dire a track record on indigenous policy as his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

As his government has failed to back the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and to keep the greed of big business at bay to hold sacred tribal land safe from the threat of oil spillages, the work of Trudeau’s government has been thrown into disregard by a score of failed promises to the recorded 1,400,685 aboriginal people frustratingly early into his administration.

It all began to unravel when Trudeau promised the parliamentary adoption of the UNDRIP. He approved it in May 2016, only to promptly discard it two months later in July. The declaration advocates indigenous providence and rights in 143 countries, with Canada being one of just four countries to, initially, not accept it. Although indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that Canada would be adopting UNDRIP ‘without qualification,’ to unanimous applause, the honeymoon period with the Trudeau government was frustratingly short lived.

The frustrations of communities that had been destroyed and marginalised by Harper found a new home in Trudeau’s administration. The former Conservative leader apologised for the systemic level of abuse in the Reserve school system that educated indigenous Canadians, but then refused to take on UNDRIP. That, coupled with his avid denial of land treaties and the plight of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women, gave momentum to hopes that Trudeau would be the man to take UNDRIP forward.

Although promises of a more progressive and flexible declaration have been made by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, in rebuttal to the ‘simplistic’ document, the trust of indigenous communities has been destroyed by Trudeau’s first betrayal.

As thousands gathered last month to protest the Trans-Mountain pipeline through sacred tribal lands in Vancouver, Trudeau has selectively forgotten the environmental and cultural catastrophe of a pipeline extension at the cost of the Native peoples. Although Trudeau believes that there can be an ‘indigenous’ stake in the $8.6 billion dollar pipeline expansion, the controversial plan has been taken forward in his first term of power, to the protests of thousands of British Columbia residents. Some of these proposals, like the Trans Pipeline (plans to extend the longest gas pipe line in Canada with the threat of a devastating oil spill in Native territory) and the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant on Lelu Island (installation of the new plant that is set to destroy sacred land and the second-largest salmon run in the country) were approved under Harper’s administration, but Trudeau’s Liberals are happily riding under the guise that the plans were out of their control.

Conversely, these proposals have also seen the concept of free, prior informed consent rapidly abandoned. Not only have the rights of indigenous communities that inhabit these lands continued to be ignored – the Liberal administration has not informed these communities of their plans in the first place. Chief Yahaan of the Gitwilgyoots, who will see his tribal lands affected by the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant, recently described the announcement as akin to ‘slapped in the face.’ ‘He could have had the common courtesy out of his office to give us an indication that this was coming,’ said the Chief. ‘But there was nothing.’

Trudeau’s administration has stayed true to one important promise. In the cases of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women, the way Trudeau’s government handle the national inquiry is a matter of life or death. Although Harper’s government refused to call the disproportionate level of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada a sociological phenomenon, the high level of indigenous female homicides fall into a disturbingly clear pattern. These women have tended to be the most vulnerable in Canadian society, and indigenous families are desperate to bring their relatives to justice. Royal Canadian Mounted Police figures indicate that over the last three decades, 1,200 indigenous women have been murdered or are still missing, and as indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett suggests, the true, unrecorded figure is ‘way, way worse.’ As Trudeau’s government launch the inquiry with trepidation, indigenous communities have expressed their concern that the investigation may be worth nothing more than the paper it is written on.

Unfortunately, none of this is new. For Metis, First Nation and Inuit communities, every single government in Canadian history has offered false promises, and Trudeau’s administration needed to make records, not discords, in its prioritization and care in implementing progressive indigenous policy.

When Trudeau made such ardent promises to the Canadian Native community in order to return to ’24 Sussex Drive,’ the Prime Minister’s residence, he needs to ensure that he is not another false friend to a group that have suffered one hundred and fifty years of betrayal.

Even though the Liberals have taken power, little has changed for indigenous Canada.

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