Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the road to reconciliation will stretch long beyond the 2019 federal election, but First Nations chiefs have mixed reviews for the Liberal government’s track record with Indigenous peoples to date.
Speaking at the Assembly of First Nations Special Assembly in Gatineau, Que., on Wednesday, Trudeau called on First Nations chiefs to remain patient as his government rolls out its “nation-to-nation” vision that includes a new Indigenous rights framework that has yet to be publicized.
“We can do this quickly or we can do this right. And I know that those two are mutually exclusive,” he said. “There are things we are moving on tangibly and in very meaningful ways and communities with which we are moving forward very quickly. But there are others where we will take more time. And that recognition that this is a long process is something that all of us get.”
Trudeau lauded his government’s accomplishments on Indigenous issues to date, including building new schools and homes and said other areas will take time.
“Will we be able to define what the fiscal relationship looks like for the nation-to-nation relationship between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples in the next 18 months?” he said. “Probably not. Indeed certainly not.”
He said there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach and that each Indigenous community will need to chart its own path to self-determination and self-governance.
“Nation-to-nation means recognizing the differences and perspectives and approaches right across the country that you bring to this table and working with you on where your priorities are,” he said.
Kurt Buffalo, councillor in Samson Cree in Alberta, said many are “anxious” for the federal government to forge ahead on promises to improve lives for Indigenous peoples, “but that’s just the way the system is.”
“He made some promises and I think he’s doing the best he can and I know that the relationship that we’re looking at moving forward will be a long-lasting sustainable relationship if everything that needs to happen happens,” he said.
But to others, Trudeau’s speech rang hollow.
“We’ve been telling him what we want for many, many years now. We want basic infrastructure. We want access to quality health care, quality education,” said Muskrat Dam First Nation Chief Stan Beardy.
“I think he means well, but in terms of offering concrete, substantive responses, I think what we want is some ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Sheila North, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who has announced her intention to run for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Trudeau needs to take more concrete action.
“I think he is saying the right things, but really, when you look at it, is he doing the right things?” she said. “We still have boil water advisories across Canada, we still have children in care. We still have missing and murdered Indigenous loved ones. It’s an ongoing issue and I think we need to see more commitment and priority for them to honour the treaties, to allow his government to work with our governments, our First Nations, and sovereign Nations to assume their jurisdiction and to implement the treaties that they already know will help their families.”
Trudeau did not mention anything about pipelines at the assembly.
The Trans Mountain pipeline is a hot issue in western Canada as two premiers threaten one another with a trade war, while hundreds of people have been arrested while protesting the expansion of the 1,150 km project.
Wednesday afternoon, the Treaty Alliance Against Expansion of the Tar Sands held a news conference to talk about the Trans Mountain expansion.
In a release sent later in the day, the group says First Nations cannot be bribed into signing onto these kinds of projects.
“If we cannot have a say as to what goes on in our territories, free from economic coercion and threats, particularly in the case of dangerous projects like Kinder Morgan, Canada cannot say that it respects the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band, which is part of the Secwepemc Nation in B.C. whose territory much of the pipeline would need to pass through.
According to the release, the Treaty Alliance is also calling for an independent investigation into the project’s approval process.