One Year and Counting: A review of PM Trudeau’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples in Canada

by January 17, 2017

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in his mandate letter to the newly-minted Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, that “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.”

This came just before he was to take on his first year in office. At the time, he earned a lot of public praise with this inclusive language, his plans for policy reforms and his assurances that things were going to change in Canada.

Let’s take a step back and review what Trudeau has done—or hasn’t done since becoming Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister.

Back in October, Indigenous communities across Canada rallied together to demand that Trudeau bring forward “deeds, not words”.

Tori Cress, an organizer for the Idle No More movement from the Beausoleil First Nation in Simcoe County, Ont., raised concerns at the time that Trudeau wasn’t following through on his laundry list of promises.

Environmental cooperation and sovereignty over land were key concerns at the day of action.

According to Cress, Trudeau’s press releases have consistently misled Canadians into thinking that their prime minister was doing something for these communities since he stepped into office. “It’s just a photo-op. Follow up,” said Cress, “Follow up and see what’s really happening in those communities.”

In December 2015, Trudeau laid out his plan to improve Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. On the top of his list was the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), increasing funding to First Nations education programs and fully implementing all 94 recommendations laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Trudeau also said that he would immediately lift the two percent cap on annual funding that had been placed on First Nations programs and raise funding for First Nations education to $2.6 billion over the next four years.

Since then, there have been serious doubts as to whether 2016’s funding will in fact surpass the two per cent trend of the last two decades. In June, Minister Bennett insisted that the cap had been lifted. However, the Canadian Press reported in July that figures released from the Indigenous Affairs Department showed that base funding for 2016-17 grew by only $107 million in 2016.

The department’s chief financial officer, Paul Thoppil, spoke to a time lag between the information provided for the release and future spending plans. If we are to take him at his word, then we will see the funding increase in the near futre; however, for the time being, Canada appears to be rolling down the same old funding track.

Meanwhile, with $40 million allocated to its cause, the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women officially launched in August, and the government’s 2016 budget committed a historic $8.4 billion over the next five years towards First Nations education, social and green infrastructure.

At the end of September, Trudeau gave conditional approval for the Pacific Northwest LNG terminal to be built on Lelu Island off the coast of B.C. This terminal would be built on First Nation’s territory along the Skeena Corridor.

The approval raised more than a few red flags for environmentalists and First Nations alike due to possible threats to the area’s salmon habitat and the project’s impact on climate change.

Cress suggested that it was the wrong move. Instead, she says, Canada should be leading a “just transition” away from fossil fuels for all Canadians and all Indigenous communities.

“We need to reduce emissions now, not [15 years from now] when these projects are going to be completed,” said Cress, referring to all the proposed pipeline expansion plans across the country.

Randall Abate is a contributing author and co-editor of ‘Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: The Search for Legal Remedies.’ The book shines a light on the unique space Indigenous Peoples occupy within the climate justice movement and discusses the legal resources available to support them.

Abate said that not supporting indigenous needs and interests here also contradicts the government’s plans to try and move away from being a leading emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

The Federal government wrote in a press release that they consulted with Indigenous communities and considered “traditional Indigenous knowledge.”

However, Russell Diabo, a spokesperson for Defenders of the Land, one of the organizers of the October day of action, had some strong words for that assertion.

“That’s nonsense,” he told IC.

He said this move shows that the government isn’t taking Indigenous Peoples seriously in the decision-making process.

Despite controversies over lack of consultation and environmental impacts, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Transport Canada also gave the go-ahead to the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia.

This project would amount to an 83-kilometre reservoir on Peace River, passing through Treaty 8 Territory. The dam’s flooding would affect surrounding First Nations’ hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

“I think it would be a real problem for him to not support Indigenous people on this issue,” said Abate back in October.

Following up with these moves, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline was approved at the end of November.

The pipeline will pass through Tsleil-Waututh Nation territory in B.C.

In May 2014, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation launched the first Indigenous legal challenge to oil sands pipelines crossing B.C., according to a report from the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society.

Their challenge was rejected in September—just two months before the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline got the green light.

“The court declared that the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation had numerous opportunities to engage in consultations, but failed to take them,” said a report in the Globe and Mail.

Diabo said, generally speaking, the government is pulling through with these consultations but that they aren’t living up to the standards and expectations set out in UNDRIP.

He explained that Trudeau is trying to adapt a Canadian definition of UNDRIP that sits lower than the minimum standard set out by the declaration.

He also said that Trudeau is trying to work with existing policies that have created a lot of contention for Indigenous Peoples in the past, such as comprehensive land claim agreements, often referred to as modern day treaties.

Defenders of the Land and Idle No More have been campaigning for a revision of these agreements since 2014, saying that the government should provide the financial support needed for these communities to make their case in Canada’s legally-mandated consultations with First Nations.

Diabo went on to say that most First Nations simply don’t have the money to fully take part in the consultation process by pulling together the research necessary to prove how these projects will impact them in the long run.

As for UNDRIP, Abate told IC that Canada’s biggest concern is squarely centered on Article 19.

Article 19 of the UN declaration states that:

“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

In other words, Indigenous Peoples would have the power to veto major development projects from happening on their lands, such as pipelines, before they begin.

“That would essentially cut off all possible development anywhere near indigenous territory and the government wasn’t ready to do that,” said Abate.

The UN adopted the declaration in 2007, with 143 states in favour and four votes against, as an instrument to protect the rights of the world’s 5,000 Indigenous Peoples and Nations.

The four contesters — Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada (all countries with significant indigenous populations) — have since gotten on board with UNDRIP, in that order.

The declaration calls for “harmonious and cooperative relations” between state and Indigenous Peoples. It outlaws discrimination and promotes full, effective participation in all matters that concern them.

Bennett announced in May that Canada was now a full supporter of the declaration, “without qualification”. However, she quickly qualified that statement by explaining that Canada was only prepared to implement Articles in UNDRIP that complied with the constitution.

She then explained that Canada was going to redefine the concept of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC) to mean “Free, Prior and Informed Consultation” and asserted that the modern treaties and self-government agreements were “the ultimate expression” of FPIC.

Russ Diabo refers to the negotiation of these agreements as “termination tables“. To quote a previous statement by Diabo, “Termination in this context means the ending of First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion.” In effect, Canada is forcing First Nations to become federal municipalities, turning reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishing all existing inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, responded to Bennett’s comments:

“Canada must commit to the true spirit and intent of the Declaration. By not doing so [Canada] threatens the very purpose, essence and integrity of the Declaration as a fundamental international human rights instrument for all States to honour. The Declaration advances human rights for Indigenous peoples beyond the status quo and offers a framework for justice and reconciliation. Clearly it should be Canada’s own legal and constitutional frameworks that must adapt to the Declaration, not how the Declaration can be domestically defined, especially our free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).”

Currently indigenous rights in Canada are represented by Section 35 of the constitution, which dictates that the government recognizes “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples.”

The Crown has the constitutional duty to consult and accommodate existing Indigenous treaty rights when it comes to any activity that could have an impact on existing or asserted rights.

But, according to Cress, it is UNDRIP that supports Indigenous Peoples’ “self-determination.”

She said the declaration provides a whole list of Articles that empower indigenous communities by allowing them to determine and act on their needs.

“I think that’s what frightens the government. Because then all of a sudden we have control of our land again, and we have say, and we don’t have to chase them down with lawsuits after the fact, after the lands been destroyed, after the water’s been polluted. We’re done with the ‘after,’” said Cress.

There is undoubtedly more to be said about Trudeau’s actions over the past year, but it is enough to recognize that we’ve only seen minor shifts in the political landscape that are overshadowed by the column of projects that were approved despite nation-wide demonstrations calling for these projects to be stopped.

Of course, Trudeau did pull through on some of his promises to indigenous communities, like an increase in funding and the launch of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. But it is what lies beyond these promises that concerns Diabo. He said it is time to fix a system that he deems broken, starting with righteous land and resource management for Indigenous Peoples in Canada, to avoid getting into contentious positions in the first place.

“If we’ve got to round dance in malls, if we’ve got to shut down roads for him to actually, truly start working on [a] real nation to nation relationship, than that’s what I’m prepared to do,” said Cress moments after partaking in a round dance that held up traffic for about 20 minutes in the middle of downtown Toronto to wrap up the day of action.