Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday December 6, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has smoothed a rough patch with Canada's First Nations by reassuring chiefs he is still committed to rebuilding a relationship based on mutual respect and partnership even if he has yet to deliver on key commitments he made before and after taking office a year ago.

But a difficult road still lies ahead for the Liberals as they try to manage the varied expectations of the indigenous groups they courted during the 2015 campaign and at the same time allow the types of development that could bolster a listless economy.

Mr. Trudeau walked into a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations on Tuesday knowing that many indigenous leaders are angry about some of his government's decisions on pipelines and energy projects, and are frustrated with the slow pace of change in the living conditions of their people.

Read more: On Trans Mountain pipeline, First Nations turn to the courts

Opinion: Prime Minister: You failed to do your job by approving pipelines

Opinion: Sorry, Vancouver: The rest of Canada needs pipelines

Addressing all of the issues that First Nations face will take time, the Prime Minister told the crowd. "I understand that many of you in this room are impatient," he said. "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."

Mr. Trudeau announced his government would introduce an indigenous-languages act with the goal of ensuring the preservation, protection and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages.

"We know all too well how residential schools and other decisions by governments were used as a deliberate tool to eliminate indigenous languages and cultures," he said. "If we are to truly advance reconciliation, we must undo the lasting damage that resulted."

Mr. Trudeau was given a hero's welcome when he met with the AFN in December, 2015.

But, this year, some of the chiefs said they would turn their backs on him or walk out over Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr's remark that the government would use "defence forces" to keep people safe from pipeline protesters, which invoked images of the 1990 Oka standoff between Mohawk protesters and police and the military.

However, Mr. Carr called the chiefs to apologize before the Prime Minister took the podium. Instead of protest, Mr. Trudeau's speech received many rounds of polite applause and a couple of standing ovations. "The test of our relationship is not whether we'll always agree," Mr. Trudeau told the gathering. "The test of our relationship is whether we can still move forward, together."

The Prime Minister spoke immediately after musician Gord Downie, the front man for the band the Tragically Hip, who announced earlier this year that he has a fatal form of brain cancer, was given the indigenous name Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for Walks with the Stars.

Mr. Downie has devoted much time in recent months to reminding Canadians about the tragic legacy of the Indian residential schools, and his new project, The Secret Path, will help raise funds for those who were damaged by the institutions. With tears streaming down his face, he was wrapped in a blanket and turned to face the four directions before being given gifts from First Nations leaders from across the country.

"It will take 150 years, or seven generations, to heal the wound of the residential schools," Mr. Downie told the assembly, pointing out that 2017 will mark 150 years since Confederation. "To become a country and truly call ourselves Canada means we must become one," he said. "We must walk down the path of reconciliation from now on, together and forever."

The Liberals committed to spending $8.4-billion over five years to improve the lives of indigenous people, and some progress has been made in terms of reducing boil-water advisories, building schools and the start of an inquiry into the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women. But chiefs say there is a long way to go.

A report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer released earlier on Tuesday, for instance, said the federal government spends far less per student at schools on reserves than the provinces spend to educate other Canadian children. It also said the increases promised by the Liberals in the most recent federal budget will not close that gap until 2020-21, the year after their current mandate ends.

Interact with The Globe