The PM has raised the stakes in his toughest file but he must start delivering on substantive change.
When Indigenous activists symbolically reoccupied traditional Algonquin land by erecting a teepee on Parliament Hill last week, Justin Trudeau paid a visit and spoke with them for about 40 minutes.
When Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a six-week hunger strike on Victoria Island in the shadow of Parliament Hill in late 2012, the prime minister of the day, Stephen Harper, never met with her and was loathe to utter her name.
Weeks after his cabinet was sworn in, the Trudeau government announced a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.
“Inaction” on a national tragedy “ends today,” said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
Harper, of course, rejected the idea, telling the CBC in a year-end interview in 2014, he saw no point in spending millions of dollars “to get the same report for the 41st or 42nd time.”
Harper, in 2008, apologized to generations of Indigenous peoples affected by the residential schools shame then moved on. Trudeau pledged to implement all 94 recommendations in Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation report in 2015.
On any government’s most vexing file, two very different styles. Two very different messages.
Harper usually appeared churlish and distant, Trudeau respectful and accommodating.
But are the results, so far, all that very different?
This Canadian awareness of the need to forge real reconciliation with the Indigenous population may have begun, in its most recent incarnation, with the Idle No More movement and gained much momentum with Sinclair’s landmark report, but it is Trudeau who has moved the issue into the Canadian mainstream.
To his credit, Trudeau has elevated Indigenous reconciliation to what we used to call a water cooler issue.
But in so doing, Trudeau has elevated expectations for redress and action on potable water, child welfare, child suicide and other real grievances. He has elevated those expectations among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
So far, he has proved adept at the symbolic.
He has scraped the name of residential schools advocate Hector-Louis Langevin from the prime minister’s office across from Parliament Hill, and he has renamed National Aboriginal Day to National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The long vacant former U.S. embassy, will become a space dedicated to Inuit, Métis and First Nations people.
But his murdered and missing women inquiry appears in crisis, losing senior staffers, frustrating families who wish to tell their stories, running behind schedule and almost certain to request more funding.
You can almost hear Harper’s words about lawyers benefiting at the expense of victims echoing in the background.
Trudeau’s government has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, but has made it clear that a clause giving Indigenous peoples free, prior and informed consent on resource projects does not include an Indigenous veto.
A study released Tuesday by the Institute for Research on Public Policy says the absence of a shared understanding of the clause creates frustrations, conflicts and a deepening lack of trust.
“It is ultimately not conducive to the development of a sustainable natural resource economy in Canada, let alone political reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” say authors Martin Papillon and Thierry Rodon, who call for Indigenous communities to become full partners on resource projects where they have jurisdiction over the land.
Beyond his symbolic announcements, Trudeau was asked a question of substance about his government’s continued refusal to implement a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order to increase funding for child welfare on reserves, and he could not answer.
He talked about ending boil water advisories, spending on infrastructure and more mental health workers.
There are an estimated 150 drinking water advisory or boil orders in First Nations communities.
Too often, funding for mental health help in communities struggling with youth suicide is stuck in some bureaucratic vortex.
On Canada Day, Bennett was confronted by Simeon Tshakapesh from the Innu community of Natuashish. His 16-year-old son Thunderheart had taken his own life just six weeks earlier.
“You don’t know how much pain I will carry the rest of my life,” he told the minister.
Innu Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee told Bennett: “The prime minister says there is money there to help the communities… but it is just sitting there, and it’s not helping anyone. It’s just sitting there.
“How long are we going to wait? We need change.”
Symbols are nice. But you didn’t see Indigenous peoples celebrating the renaming of the Langevin block last weekend. Trudeau is running the danger of inflating expectations he cannot fulfil.
Tim Harper writes on national affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @nutgraf1