APTN National News
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday his government would be introducing a federal law to protect and preserve Indigenous languages.
Speaking to chiefs gathered for the Assembly of First Nations annual winter gathering, Trudeau said the proposed legislation would be co-developed with Indigenous peoples and aimed at protecting, preserving and revitalizing First Nation, Inuit and Metis languages.
“We know all too well how residential schools and other decisions by government were used as a tool to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures. We must undo the lasting damage that resulted,” said Trudeau. “Today I commit to you our government will enact an Indigenous languages Act.”
The announcement was greeted by a standing ovation in the conference hall at the Hilton Lac Leamy Casino, in Gatineau, Que.
Trudeau faced an audience that had just basked in a moving ceremony honouring Gord Downie, the lead singer for the Tragically Hip.
While there was talk some chiefs planned to turn their backs on the prime minister during the speech over discontent with his government’s decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, Trudeau faced no open acts of protest.
Instead, the packed hall hung on his every word.
Trudeau re-announced his government’s plan to launch a process of “decolonizing” all existing federal policies and laws. He said the joint-process with Indigenous leaders would be led by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The prime minister also doubled-down on his campaign promise to remove all First Nations across the country from boil water advisories within five years. He said 14 First Nations had been removed from the list to date and half of all communities struggling with boil water advisories would have clean water within three years.
Trudeau said his government also made headway over the last year on improving education on reserves. He said over 2,000 students began the school year in new school buildings. Trudeau said 31 schools are currently under construction, 27 are being designed and 27 are in feasibility studies.
The Liberal government has also made “progress” on 36 of the 45 calls to actions issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that fall exclusively under federal purview, said Trudeau.
He also said the government is committed to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“I understand many of you in the room are impatient, many of the people you serve are impatient,” said Trudeau. “That’s okay, I’m impatient too.”
Trudeau began his speech by referring to the Journey of Nishiyuu, a 1,600 km trek that began with a group of youth from Quebec’s northernmost Cree community of Whapmagoostui First Nation and ended in Ottawa in March 2013.
“The tenacity and determination that fueled these youths inspired a nation and brought the concerns of their community to the forefront and, quite frankly, the indifference on that day of the federal government only served to demonstrate the need of their journey in the first place,” said Trudeau. “Today, we gather in the capital of this nation as many nations, we gather here in this moment to reflect on the first year of this journey to build a new relationship, one based on recognition and respect.”
Trudeau said this journey wouldn’t be easy.
“No one here fools him or herself the path our country overwhelmingly agreed to take will always be a gentle one or an easy one,” said Trudeau. “We’ve already felt some headwinds and there will be more.”
Trudeau was referring to the Trans Mountain approval which led to immediate condemnation last week from some Indigenous leaders, prompting the Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr to suggest the military could be called into deal with resistance. Carr apologized for that comment Tuesday in Ottawa.
Trudeau noted Carr’s apology in the speech.
The Liberal government has also faced outrage over its approval of the Site C hydro dam project that threatens to wipe out Treaty 8 lands in B.C.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said during a press conference after Trudeau’s speech that people should understand the Liberals have only begun to govern.
“It’s been one year, we have to keep working in collaboration and partnership, but we have to put the pressure on,” said Bellegarde. “It’s really a journey, it’s not dealt with in one year and I think everyone needs to get that in their head.”
Bellegarde also said his office would by the key point of contact with the Prime Minister’s Office in developing the joint Crown-First Nation mechanism on co-developing the review of federal policies and laws along with the development of an Indigenous language law.
“We don’t just deal with one department, all Crown ministers should be involved,” said Bellegarde.
NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who is a member of the Cree Nation which managed to carve out its own jurisdiction through decades of battles with Quebec and Ottawa, said the AFN needs to be careful about trying to take over the process.
“The national chief mentioned twice or three times in his speech this morning that the AFN is not a title holder,” said Saganash. “In working with the PMO, how is he is going to ensure my rights are protected, my rights are defended from the perspective of my people and my organizations, like the Grand Council of the Cree? There might be a problem with that, certainly from the Cree perspective…we need to take that into consideration. If you are going to decide on major issues that have an impact on my people, then you have to involve my people.”
Saganash said he was pleased to hear Trudeau commit to introducing a law on Indigenous languages. And, while it sounded good, he said the government needs to be measured on what it actually does.
“After a year with this government I’ve learned we need to be cautious with Liberal words because words will be words until there is real action,” said Saganash. “We can’t trust those words anymore, at least not me, I’ve been there for a year now watching them.”