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Justin Trudeau’s government is losing its momentum on Indigenous reconciliation, leaders say — and they’re worried a Conservative government could be worse

June 21, 2024

Nine years after Justin Trudeau came to power campaigning on a new relationship with Indigenous people, Indigenous leaders say his government’s once considerable rate of progress is slowing — and they are worried about that momentum reversing if the Conservatives topple the Liberals in the next election.

Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with AFN National Chief Cindy Woodhouse, left, and president of the Métis National Council Cassidy Caron, right, after his remarks at the Indigenous History Month reception in Ottawa on June 17, 2024.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Star: OTTAWA — Nine years after Justin Trudeau came to power campaigning on a new relationship with Indigenous people, Indigenous leaders say his government’s once considerable rate of progress is slowing — and they are worried about that momentum reversing if the Conservatives topple the Liberals in the next election.

As they mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, leaders of three national organizations say the reconciliation agenda from Trudeau’s 2015 platform has led to greater advancements on Indigenous priorities than previous governments.

Most importantly, they feel greater recognition of their self-government authority and believe there are stronger ties with Ottawa. But Indigenous leaders are also concerned about “going backwards,” losing those relationships should a Conservative government take power in the next year, and are currently taking steps to make sure they don’t lose their seat at the table.

“Hopefully, with all the changes in this country over the last 15 years or so, it’s not possible to be a governing party in this country and still hold those same beliefs or treat First Nations, Inuit and Métis rights holders and rights-holding institutions in the way that the previous government did,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed.

“But you never really can tell.” 

How the Trudeau government has pursued reconcilliation

Since 2015, the Liberal government has pursued a strong Indigenous mandate, including promising to end all boil-water advisories by 2021, an inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S), and fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, including investing more than $30 billion in Indigenous priorities.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak told the Star earlier this year the “trajectory” of Canadians’ thoughts on Indigenous people and reconciliation is changing, which she credits to the work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and court settlements like on child welfare.

In October, the Federal Court approved a $23-billion settlement over child welfare discrimination. Then in February, the Supreme Court upheld legislation affirming Indigenous self-governance on child welfare over provincial jurisdiction. 

Woodhouse Nepinak said it’s important “for people to start speaking about the truth of the history of this country, it’s not all cosy and it’s not all perfect and First Nations people have been at the brunt of that.”

Having worked with ITK and Inuit organizations since 2002, Obed has experienced several successive Liberal and Conservative governments. He said the Trudeau government has “transformed” its relationship with the Inuit.

ITK has seen “incredible advancements in their relationship,” including the creation of a Crown-Inuit Partnership agreement, co-development of major legislation like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Act and forming relationships with more than 20 government ministers.

Métis National Council (MNC) president Cassidy Caron said there has been more progress in the past nine years “than we ever have in our history for the Métis nation,” including the signing of its Canada-Métis Nation Accord and “innovative” co-developed legislation with child welfare.

Getting stuck in ‘incremental positive change’

The Liberal government has also been criticized for falling short on some promises. In the past year, government reports showed a lack of progress on closing long-standing socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, particularly around housing, health care and policing.

Obed said the ongoing challenge with the federal government is “incremental positive change versus transformative change, and we’re stuck in incremental positive change in a number of our different file areas.” And while the ITK has positive relationships with some federal departments, others “still seem to be able to do whatever it is that they want with funds, including or excluding Inuit in the process.”

After this year’s federal budget was tabled in April, Woodhouse Nepinak called on the government to make a new commitment to reconciliation with First Nations people, saying Indigenous people are no longer a priority for the government.

Obed and Caron echoed the national chief’s renewed calls for reconciliation. Caron said “the reconciliation agenda that was promised in 2015 has gone a little stale,” and “a deep reflection” on what should be on a reconciliation agenda moving forward is needed.

“They respect our processes and have a willingness to work with us. However, it’s not as full steam as it was nine years ago, even five years ago.”

The cabinet ministers responsible for the Indigenous file aren’t surprised by that response.

“When you are existing as the colonial partner in a colonial country, I think it’s fair to expect all kinds of feelings and observations about the speed of transformation, whether it’s fast enough, whether it’s enough,” Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu told the Star.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said the agenda set in 2015 was “super ambitious” and Canada’s journey with reconciliation is going to be multi-generational.

“We’re still far from being in the ideal situation, but we have changed the trajectory of where this country needs to go and we are going in that direction. Each and every year, we’re advancing on a range of issues,” he said, adding reconciliation is a “one-way street” going only forward.

A turn back toward the Harper years?

With a federal election on the horizon, memories of the previous Conservative government, which saw one of the largest political movements by Indigenous people in decades with the Idle No More movement, has given Indigenous leaders cause for concern.

Obed said the approach taken by the Harper government to “discredit democratic functions of Indigenous Peoples” was something that “set back the work of our organizations, in some cases, by a generation.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been making efforts to change his party’s relationship with Indigenous people; in 2008, he said Indigenous people needed to learn the value of hard work and cast doubt on compensating residential school survivors for their trauma, comments for which he later apologized.

He now supports searching for unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, and announced his support for a First Nations Resource Charge, which would allow First Nations to levy taxes on resource projects on their lands, something he called “a First Nations-led solution to a made-in-Ottawa problem.”

Caron said she has good working relationships with the Conservative party’s critics on the Indigenous file, and has met with the opposition leader .

But both Caron and Obed said they do not want to “move backwards” by losing the voices they gained through bilateral meetings the AFN, MNC and ITK established with the Liberal government in 2016.

“I think the only way that we continue to move forward is having open and honest relationships and conversations, and if we can’t even be at the table with whatever government is in power, that would set us back,” Caron said.

Conservative party spokesperson Sebastian Skamski said Poilievre has prioritized meeting with Indigenous leaders, and members of his team “will continue to engage with First Nations, Inuit and Métis” and work “toward real economic reconciliation and support them in taking back control of their money, their resources, and their lives.”

Reconciliation on the ballot

Hajdu said reconciliation will be kept on the agenda in the next election campaign and hopes “all parties understand that reconciliation is the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do.”

Her priority for the next year is getting the long-awaited Indigenous water legislation through the House. Hajdu also wants to see more on economic reconciliation through the Indigenous Loan Guarantee Program and including Indigenous people in resource development.

Anandasangaree said housing, closing the infrastructure gap, ending the MMIWG2S crisis and self-government through co-developed legislation and modern treaties will continue to be his priorities. 

“These are things that we need to continuously work towards, and every government that comes after us — it could be in a year, it could be in 20 years or 30 years — need to continue on this direction and if anything, every government needs to double their efforts,” he said.

Obed and Caron said implementing UNDRIP Act’s action plan is another priority, including an Indigenous Human Rights Tribunal, which would serve as an accountability mechanism for UNDRIP’s implementation. 

The MNC is also focusing on the self-government agreements for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, despite the delays and controversy they have encountered through Bill C-53.

Obed said ITK plans to continue with its tuberculosis elimination plan, which Ottawa has previously pledged to fund. ITK has asked for $131 million over seven years.

“We don’t want the legacies of successive governments to make outrageous promises that then aren’t kept,” he said.

“I think that is the direct threat that reconciliation faces.”

Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics and Indigenous issues for the Star. Reach her via email: