Can Trudeau deliver on his First Nations promises? Liberal governments have talked a good game in the past

The 42nd Canadian election campaign is finally over. It was the 18th for First Nations people in the freedom-to-vote era.

And, this time, First Nation as well as Métis and Inuit people did indeed participate.

There were also more First Nation, Métis and Inuit candidates running for office than ever before and the greatest number — 10 — ever elected. Perhaps we will even see more than one cabinet minister.

By many accounts this election also saw the largest turnout of First Nation, Métis and Inuit voters, so high that some communities ran out of ballots.

Something clearly resonated. That something was, at least in part, Justin Trudeau.

While First Nation, Métis and Inuit issues were peripheral to the 12-week campaign, and nearly non-existent in the national conversation, party leaders and candidates did work to address the issues at the more local level.

Trudeau spoke to the Assembly of First Nations, as well as participated in APTN’s “Virtual Town Hall” broadcast; he even responded in writing to questions from the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres.

We have some idea of Trudeau’s vision. It is ambitious. If considered seriously, what are the implications of the Liberal Party’s commitments to Indigenous Peoples?

Nation to nation

First, or at least within the first 100 days, Trudeau has committed to an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

He has also promised to consult in the three months leading up to the inquiry, and to focus on justice, healing and ending violence.

In this, and seemingly everything else related to First Nation, Métis and Inuit issues, Trudeau has routinely stressed a return to nation-to-nation relationships.

While it is not entirely clear what that entails, Trudeau did, in a speech to chiefs on the eve of the campaign in July, open by recognizing the importance of the Two Row Wampum.

This cardinal treaty in the canon of Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) post-contact diplomacy demands mutual autonomy. As the common reading goes, First Nation signatories paddle their canoe, and settlers paddle theirs. Neither shall steer the other’s vessel.

In practical terms, nation-to-nation should mean the closure of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and an end to interventionist policies and attitudes.

But Trudeau went further during the campaign when he promised to review all Harper-era legislation on First Nations and repeal those that contravened Section 35 of the Constitution respecting aboriginal and treaty rights.

In his discussion with APTN, Trudeau actually proposed a “complete review” of all laws passed without consultation.

At the least, we should see the end to the previous government’s Indian Act amendments, Transparency Act, Bill C-51 and so on. A review ought to include the Indian Act itself and the unilateral 1867 British North America Act.

Trudeau has also committed to implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In at least one speech, he mentioned that implementation would start with the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At the heart of the declaration is land restitution, Article 26, which stipulates that “Indigenous Peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

Accepting the TRC recommendations while adopting UN declaration would be a package deal sure to improve the relationship.

Informed consent

In a related matter, the issue of veto power over resource development affecting indigenous lands also came up during the campaign.

Trudeau accepted the principle of free, prior and informed consent, stating “governments grant permits, communities grant permission.”

Though consent will require federal legislation to bypass regulating agencies and coerce the provinces, which currently have jurisdiction over natural resources, it seems possible that First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples might finally have this power restored.

In addition to all of the above, Trudeau has also committed to closing the gap in education, and advancing housing, health, policing, and child welfare issues collaboratively through a renewed Kelowna Accord effort.

He’ll clean up dirty water, fix food security issues in the north, address the root causes of urban homelessness, restore a rigorous environmental assessment process, tackle Métis economic and legal concerns, and keep land conflicts out of the courts. And build the Freedom Road to Shoal Lake #40.

Note of caution

A brief note of caution is probably appropriate here.

Federal Liberal governments do have a record of breaking promises when it comes to Indigenous Peoples.

After the 1967 pro-rights Hawthorne report, Pierre Trudeau committed to a “just” new direction on Indian policy.

But what he delivered was a 1969 white paper aimed at assimilation.

In 1993, the Jean Chretien Liberals drafted a progressive Aboriginal platform for their first election, but once elected completely ignored it and any semblance of Aboriginal rights.

In fact, soon after they implemented a strict funding cap that has resulted in a de facto decrease in resources for communities every year for the past 24.

Despite this history, the First Nation, Métis and Inuit vote this time was hearty. We are told it mattered, and so why not expect the dramatic transformation explicit in Liberal Party commitments?

After all Justin Trudeau has promised real change.


Lines on the Shore: Stories from the Border of an Island Indian Reserve

On the north shore of Gchi Nme Mnissing, “The Great Sturgeon Island” (and otherwise known as Beausoleil First Nation or Christian Island), is the Big Sand Bay. It’s an arcing black and tan beach flanked by cedar trees and Muskoka chairs. From below the sand is consumed by the clear and bright breaking waves of Georgian Bay. It’s a feast overseen by cottagers, visitors, who through a legal and economic deal with the First Nation and federal government occupy this and many of the Island’s sand beaches during the summer months.

Before the ancestors arrived on the coast another people called it home. To the Huron it was Gahoendoe. They spent their brief time on the shore trying to trade with the Anishinaabeg in the north and building St. Marie II, a Jesuit mission promising shelter from the Nahdoway at the end of the seventeenth-century war. Across the bay to the east those Nahdoway camped on the limestone shelf known as Cedar Ridge, presiding over Huron gloom. Today you can see St. Marie II when arriving at the Island by boat. It’s that pile of rocks beside the school.

The ice comes and goes. For a few years there will be none and then a period of low and cold water that freezes thick enough to walk, snowmobile and eventually drive across. It is a freedom rarely taken for granted. In the old days of the early spring, people used to hop from iceberg to iceberg to work or school. Last winter there were two roads. The first cracked and flooded, the second lasted the duration. Over the years men have set out from one shore but fell short of the other, down through the ice in their Chevy or Ford.

The white stone can be blinding on sunny days. A beacon on the southern peninsula of the Island, the lighthouse stands nearly six stories tall. It is one of the six so-called Imperial Lighthouses built throughout Lake Huron. It was the first constructed, completed in 1857 (the same year the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of Canada Act was passed). This imperial light guided mid-to-late nineteenth century imperial traders and fisherman up and down the coast, past the Island to somewhere else. Do not crash on these dark shores. During the Great War the army came and stripped the lighthouse of its steel.

On the trip west from Coldwater-Narrows, that first failure of a reserve experiment in Canada, the Catholics and Anglicans who joined the Ojibwe (many of them Catholics and Anglicans as well) granted themselves the privilege of naming. They called the three Islands, which now comprise the reserve, Charity, Faith and Hope. My father’s ashes mingle with the dunes of Faith. On Charity, bodies from elsewhere sometimes wash ashore. There were two corpses last spring. The couple that discovered the second thought it was an odd shaped white boulder until they didn’t.

Aside from occasional ice, there are no roads to and from Gchi Nme Mnissing, just The Boat. There have been many boats over the years: The Quinte, The Upper Canada and The R.A. Hoey. Hoey was an Indian Affairs bureaucrat, an enforcer of the residential in residential schools and champion of selective human breeding. Today it’s the MV Sandy Graham trekking across a dozen times a day. Alexander (Sandy) Graham was a North Carolina democrat and public servant. His namesake is 60 years old now and spends at least a few weeks a year getting patched up in one shipyard or another. But it is the lifeline for women who haul food and children between shores.

After being pushed out of their territory in what is now Wisconsin, a group of Bodawatomi came north. They helped defend what was becoming Canada in the War of 1812 and then searched for a new home. They reached the shores of the Island just before the Ojibwe who travelled from Coldwater. But the pious did not like these ones; too heathen, obstinate, and refusing to convert. And so they were banished to the eastern coast, eating raccoons and seagull eggs when they weren’t starving. Their descendants are keepers of ceremony still.

Just south of the dock, on the mainland side, there used to be a clearing in the bush close to the water. It was known as Toby’s Tavern. My grandfather would occasionally be there with friends, off the reserve and away from the restrictions of the Indian Act. Today it’s surrounded by million-dollar vacation homes that face the bay. Cottagers glimpsing the Island, holidays occasionally interrupted when the long dead pass freely through their concrete and siding. Here, lingering ghosts are as dependable as crashing waves and crumbling beach.

This article draws on stories from the Late Leon King, Gloria and Roseanne King, Larry Copegog, Valerie Monague, Roly Monague, Shelby King-Shawongonabe, Marla Monague and the Scott Family.