Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with the public as a pipeline protestor stands behind him at a town hall at the University of Winnipeg in Winnipeg
On his his just-completed nine-city town hall tour of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got sharp and sometimes angry questions about aboriginal affairs — a sign of the growing impatience and frustration many indigenous people and their leaders have with his government.
And the reviews, in some cases, have been less than kind.
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas, who was at Trudeau’s Wednesday night town hall forum in Saskatoon, characterized one of Trudeau’s answers on indigenous youth centre as “dismissive.”
Trudeau told the crowd in Saskatoon that First Nations chiefs who told him that money was needed for TVs and sofas in indigenous youth centres had not been listening to their own youth.
“When a chief says that to me, I pretty much know that they haven’t actually talked to their young people,” Trudeau said in Saskatoon. “Because most of the young people I’ve talked to are asking for a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land and a place with Internet access so they can do their homework in a meaningful way because their homes are often too crowded and they need a place to work and study.”
Trudeau offered an almost identical answer — that chiefs were out of touch with their own youth — when challenged the next night in Winnipeg by Eric Redhead of Shamattawa First Nation, a community of about 1,500 located about 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg near Hudson Bay.
Shamattawa had pointedly asked Trudeau why the federal government was slow to respond to the suicide crisis on many First Nations reserves. Redhead singled out the Jan. 8 deaths, by suicide, of two 12-year-old girls, Jolyn Winter and Chantell Fox, from Wapakeka First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, about 200 kilometres from the Manitoba border.
One of the girls was the granddaughter of Wapakeka Chief Brennan Sainnawap who, in a letter to Health Canada last July, begged for more funds to deal with a mental health crisis among youth in his community. His request was turned down. A senior Health Canada bureaucrat explained that the request came “at an awkward time” in the federal government’s budget cycle.
This week, an anonymous donor, moved by the deaths of the two girls and the plight of the Wapakeka community, pledged $380,000 which the community believes can pay for four mental health workers.
“Now we have a private donor who stepped up — this is not the Conservative government, this is your government — who said it was an awkward time,” Redhead said. “We didn’t vote you in for that. Is this the new government now where the private sector is funding the First Nation suicide prevention program?”
In response, Trudeau agreed with Redhead’s assessment. “We have seen far too many tragedies ongoing in indigenous communities and we need to more. Absolutely.”
But then Trudeau largely repeated his answer from the night before in Saskatoon, saying, indigenous leaders who ask for sofas and TVs for their youth centre “haven’t done a very good job of listening.”
“The Prime Minister was reflecting on countless conversations he has had – over many years – regarding challenges facing Indigenous youth,” Trudeau’s press secretary said in an e-mailed statement late Friday night. “It is important for him to hear the perspectives and ideas from everyone – including leaders, young people, parents, and elders – in order to better understand the issues they are facing, and how best they can be addressed from community to community.”
As for the comments about canoe storage and wi-fi, Ahmad said, “During these conversations, First Nations youth often raise the need for greater investments in youth programming and services, and we will continue listening to youth in Indigenous communities across the country while working in partnership with them to develop new solutions and opportunities.”
But even as heard much during thse town hall meetings, Trudeau was challenged time and again by indigenous people. It happened in Kingston, Ont., in Peterborough, Ont., in Halifax as well as Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
“The conditions on our reserves our horrible! Horrible!,” said a woman in Winnipeg who said she was a member of the Ebb and Flow First Nation, a community of about 2,000 near the northern edge of Lake Manitoba. “We live in third world conditions in our First Nations communities and that has to change. How is your government is going to help our communities? ”
In Fredericton, Trudeau was told his government had not put in place appropriate measures to consult First Nations on the Energy East pipeline project. In Kingston, an indigenous woman broke down in tears begging him to “protect our water.” In Peterborough, he was introduced by Curve Lake First Nation Chief Phyllis Williams who reminded the prime minister that her community had no potable water and was living under a boil water advisory.
At more than one, he was criticized for failing to implement the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Indigenous Peoples. Two Dalhousie University students, Alex Ayt and Kathleen Olds, asked Trudeau for a selfie during a photo opp at a Halifax coffee shop. They then used the occasion of being up close and personal with the PM to press him on UNDRIP.
Before Christmas, at events like the Assembly of First Nations annual special assembly in Gatineau, Que., many chiefs spoke about how the Trudeau government was slow to keep commitments, such as lifting a freeze on operating transfers to First Nations governments.
And they spoke of how the current government began with high hopes and high expectations among indigenous Canadians.
“During the election campaign (Trudeau) and his party convinced a lot of our people who normally don’t vote in elections to step forward and come to vote with the hope that change would come about. But change has been very slow in coming,” Jean Guy Whiteduck, chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin band based in Maniwaki, Que., said at that December AFN meeting. “At this stage I don’t know if he gets a passing mark.”
During the series of town hall meetings, Trudeau heard from only a handful of chiefs but heard plenty from angry everyday citizens of First Nations communities.
But his response in each case was similar usually. First, he would acknowledge the grievance put to him, often agreeing that the complaint is a valid one, before promising to do better. But that promise would frequently be followed by a recitation of of some of things his government has done.
“We invested historic amounts of money in budget 2016 and [we will] continue to invest,” Trudeau said in Winnipeg in response to the woman from Ebb and Flow. “I think that we are starting on a path that is going to change the future for your daughter and the present for yourself. We’re not moving as fast as I’d like on that path — I absolutely agree — but it’s a difficult path to walk.”