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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

gary mason

Tough calls ahead for Trudeau on aboriginal issues Add to ...

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it seems, is getting ready to put away the selfie stick and get serious about governing.

An article in The New York Times this week suggested that Canada’s celebrity politician will soon begin showing that he is more than the sometimes shirtless social-media sensation the world has come to know, that he is also head of a government with a bold list of election promises it needs to start fulfilling.

Now is the time when difficult public policy decisions collide with colourful photo ops and easy campaign proclamations.

Related: Downie’s last stand brings hope for indigenous people

Related: PM marks Aboriginal Day with sunrise ritual, father’s buckskin and a canoe ride

No relationship is likely to be more severely tested than the one Mr. Trudeau is trying to forge with the country’s aboriginal peoples. The Prime Minister has offered them the moon. Not long after taking office, he told a gathering of the Assembly of First Nations that it was time for a nation-to-nation relationship to be renewed.

“One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Aboriginal Peoples … are not an inconvenience, but rather a sacred obligation,” Mr. Trudeau declared.

Understandably, his words incited great optimism. But the sunniness that his vows created is already beginning to cloud over.

This week, the Federal Court of Appeal began hearing a First Nations challenge to the massive, $9-billion Site C dam on the Peace River in British Columbia.

Earlier in the summer, the federal government quietly issued permits vital to the dam’s development. The West Moberly and Prophet First Nations were stunned. They thought the Trudeau government was going to spend some time hearing their concerns about the widespread environmental destruction the dam will cause before giving the project its blessing.

Now words like “betrayed” are being levelled at the Prime Minister.

Should the courts rule in the First Nations’ favour – and given the recent judicial track record there’s no reason to believe this won’t occur – it will put the Trudeau government in a brutal bind. It will have to choose between the wishes of a provincial government that dearly wants the project to proceed, and the concerns of First Nations people whose way of life will be irrevocably damaged if the dam goes ahead.

Then there are pipelines.

It is now taken as a given Mr. Trudeau will approve at least one pipeline project this term (and maybe for good). The one most people are betting will get the okay later this year is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposal, which has already received conditional approval from the National Energy Board.

There is massive opposition to the venture, including from the Coast Salish nations, whose lands surround the pipeline’s terminus in Burnaby, B.C.

The potential damage any oil spill would cause is arguably far less than the ruin that the Site C dam will inflict on farmers and aboriginal groups in that area, but the political fallout from the Kinder Morgan decision is far greater. There aren’t as many votes at risk in northeastern British Columbia as there are in Greater Vancouver. That is the political calculus involved.

In the end, however, Mr. Trudeau will likely decide that the fissures any final approval would cause with First Nations and voters in the Vancouver area are worth it, compared with the goodwill that would be engendered in Alberta, and possibly vote-rich Quebec, if TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, much opposed in Quebec, becomes a casualty of the decision. Many assume the Trudeau government will approve one of the two pipeline projects, but not both.

And there are other matters that will test the grand expectations the Prime Minister has encouraged within the aboriginal community.

There are already grumblings among First Nations groups, for example, that the mandate of the inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women is far too narrow to accomplish anything of substance.

Mr. Trudeau has also committed to repealing all legislation unilaterally imposed on indigenous people by the previous government, a pledge that in many instances, he may discover, makes no sense at all.

More broadly, the Prime Minister has undertaken to greatly improve the conditions on First Nations reserves across the country – something every federal government in the last 50 years has pledged, and mostly failed, to do.

According to recent opinion polls, Mr. Trudeau is still enjoying a remarkable level of support among Canadians. But that charisma-fuelled approval is about to be tried, and no more so than with the one group to whom he has promised the most.

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