APTN National News
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fielded a wide array of questions covering topics from natural resource development, to northern food insecurity and the gap in education funding for on-reserve schools during an APTN National News town hall on Friday.
It was the first time APTN interviewed a sitting prime minister.
The town hall was hosted by APTN National News anchor Cheryl McKenzie. The prime minister answered questions from viewers over telephone, email and social media.
Trudeau said his government is working as hard and fast as it can to deal with the numerous issues facing Indigenous peoples, but it also has to make up for a backlog that built up over 10 years by the previous Conservative government.
He said if the previous Conservative government had supported the $5 billion Kelowna Accord reached in the dying days of former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s administration, the present would have been much different.
“We have a long road to walk, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can right now to address the most urgent needs and build capacity,” said Trudeau. “We have had 10 years of a government that did next to nothing, nowhere near enough on Indigenous issues. There is a lot of backlog to make up for and we are going as quickly and responsibility as we can…There is a need for faster, faster, but we are doing it as quickly and responsibly as we can.”
Trudeau made the statement in response to an emailed question from Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society which launched a successful human rights complaint against Ottawa over its underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services.
Blackstock pointed out the Trudeau government’s most recent federal budget back-loaded about half of promised new funds for on-reserve child welfare services.
Trudeau was asked about the controversial $8.8 billion Site C Dam project by BC Hydro slated for the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia. The project is opposed by Treaty 8 First Nations in the region because they say it threatens their territory.
The prime minister said the B.C. government had the lead on the issue and that Ottawa was merely playing a supporting role.
“The previous (federal) government made some decision on that in the dying days before the last election,” said Trudeau. “We need to make sure the environment and economy are not put in opposition and indeed Indigenous Canadians are properly consulted on their concerns.”
Trudeau also hedged away from a previous comment he made during an APTN National News town hall held before the last federal election when he agreed First Nation communities had a right to veto resource projects on their territory.
The prime minister said his government is planning to take an approach, mirrored on existing governance structures in the northern territories, which would make the issue moot.
“Are we going to get absolute unanimity on every project going forward? There is always going to be someone, somewhere who is opposed for different reason,” said Trudeau. “When you get to an issue, theoretically, you have 20 different communities approving the pipeline and one that has concerns about it…ultimately you have to go with consensus.”
Trudeau said the Canadian economy depends on the ability to get resources to market, meaning pipelines need to be built. He said the government needs to begin consultation with Indigenous peoples at a project’s inception to ensure “we have broad support for every project going forward.”
Trudeau has made reshaping the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples one of his government’s top priorities. He has also pledged to implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Trudeau government is expected to soon announce the beginning of a promised national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
This is the first time a sitting prime minister has appeared on APTN National News and followed months of negotiation.
The special, one-hour interview has been in the works since December.