As he opened the annual meeting Tuesday of the Assembly of First Nations, the organization’s national chief, Perry Bellegarde, looked ahead to 2017, the year in which Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
“What do we have to celebrate? The oppression? The poor housing? The high suicides?” Bellegarde told the 700 or so chiefs and other indigenous leaders.
A few hours later, Gord Downie was in the same hall. The frontman for the Tragically Hip, dealing with incurable brain cancer, has made it his mission to raise awareness of the harm caused by residential schools, and Bellegarde and the chiefs wanted to honour Downie’s work with a blanketing ceremony.
Downie, weeping with emotion, was smudged, an eagle feather was fixed in his hat, and he was given the spirit name, “Man Who Walks Amongst The Stars.”
Then, Downie, too, spoke about 2017.
It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school
“It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school,” Downie said. “To become a country that can truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one, we must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on.”
Then it was time for the man who was supposed to make it all better: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
A year earlier, Trudeau had been prime minister for barely a month when he spoke at the same annual assembly and the chiefs, thrilled to be rid of Stephen Harper, honoured Trudeau with a blanketing ceremony.
But now, 12 months after he was given that honour, several chiefs say Trudeau’s record has not lived up to his rhetoric.
“I’m not too impressed,” said Chief Wilfred King of Gull Bay First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
“I’m disappointed that there has been no real transformative change in the communities. What I see is a lot of great speeches but nothing has translated on the ground level in First Nation communities.”
Some chiefs, upset by remarks made by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr about calling in the army to deal with pipeline protesters, were prepared to disrupt Trudeau’s speech, but backed off after Carr apologized.
And Trudeau Tuesday did not shy away from acknowledging that several promises he had made to the AFN a year earlier were still works in progress.
“We’ve taken the first steps in what we all know is going to be a multi-generational journey,” Trudeau said.
“No one here fools him or herself that the path our country overwhelmingly agreed to take will always be a gentle one, or an easy one. We’ve already felt some headwinds. And there will be more.”
Trudeau won applause from the chiefs for committing to introduce an Indigenous Languages Act, which he said would preserve, protect and revitalize the more than 50 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit languages still in use.
He also spoke extensively about education and indigenous young people.
His government, in its first budget last year, promised to spend $3.7 billion over five years to improve education for children living on reserves. But even after injecting all of that new money into the system, the Parliamentary Budget Office, in a new report also out Tuesday, estimated there will still be a funding gap of between $1.8 billion and $3.5 billion.
The gap, in this case, would be the difference between per-student spending on First Nations reserves and per-student spending off-reserve in provincial schools.
At coffee breaks, chiefs complained that the promised money has not moved out the door fast enough.
“We need injections of money into our base funding to increase our per-student funding levels,” said David Crate, chief of the Fisher River Cree Nation, north of Winnipeg.
Trudeau, though, seemed to win over enough of these frustrated chiefs.
“I understand that many of you in this room are impatient,” Trudeau told them. “I know many of the people you serve are impatient. I am impatient too. But I’m encouraged by the meaningful progress we’ve already made.”
But, to some chiefs, there will be a limit to the goodwill Trudeau’s government has been granted.
“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,” said Jean Guy Whiteduck, chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin band based in Maniwaki, Que.
“At this stage I don’t know if he gets a passing mark. But one year is not very much time. Give him one more year, I guess. But if things don’t change, most aboriginal people will not support him. In the next election, they’ll go somewhere else or they just won’t vote again. They’re still hopeful. Me, I’m doubtful.”
PROMISES VERSUS PERFORMANCE: The Trudeau government record on indigenous issues
On Dec. 8, 2015, just a few weeks after he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau spoke to the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting. He was warmly received, honoured with a ‘blanketing ceremony’ and, in the speech he gave that day, made five specific promises, telling the assembled chiefs, “I give you my word that we will renew and respect that relationship.”
Here are those five promises he made and an update on those promises, a year later:
• “The creation of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.”
Promise kept. The inquiry is getting going though some groups, including the Assembly of First Nations, have some issues with the pace of the inquiry and its terms of reference.
• “Make significant investments in First Nations education.”
Mostly kept, though a Parliamentary Budget Office report out Tuesday says that even when the Liberals spend an extra $3.7 billion over the next five years as they promised to do in Budget 2016, the funding gap between on-reserve education and off-reserve education could still be more than $3 billion.
• “Our government will immediately — as part of our first budget — lift the two-per-cent cap on funding for First Nations programs.”
Promise incomplete. The funding cap has been lifted for some programs.
• “We will fully implement the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
There has been progress on a handful of the TRC’s 94 recommendations but opposition politicians and indigenous groups say the government has backed away from implementing the UN declaration of rights. Trudeau, on Tuesday, told the AFN that work had at least started on 36 of the 45 TRC recommendations for which the federal government has complete control.
• “We will conduct a full review of the legislation unilaterally imposed on Indigenous peoples by the previous government.”
Incomplete. On Tuesday, Trudeau announced that his Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould start that work.
David Akin, National Post