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.


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