Justin Trudeau was asked two questions at Wednesday’s meeting of the Assembly of First Nations. Both, on different Indigenous issues, were about what Mr. Trudeau can guarantee he will get done before the next election, in 2019. Both of the Prime Minister’s answers had the same point: The government cannot force these issues onto a short timeline.
“We can do this quickly, or we can do this right,” Mr. Trudeau said. “I know that those two are mutually exclusive.”
It was a direct way to reset expectations. Mr. Trudeau’s government has been doing a lot of that lately. The promises and ambitions are still big. The warnings about the time it will take are fairly pointed.
In January, Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott gave a news conference recounting indicators about the quality of life in Indigenous communities – for example, vastly higher rates of tuberculosis and much lower rates of high-school graduation. One implicit point was that progress will require long-term change beyond the usual time frames of electoral politics.
Both Ms. Philpott and Mr. Trudeau make a valid point, that Indigenous communities face big, complex problems that require long-term efforts. Both are also trying to square expectations with reality. Mr. Trudeau’s party has made a lot of big promises.
The 2015 Liberal election platform promised to enact all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to build a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples and to forge a new long-term fiscal relationship that removed automatic, 2-per-cent caps on annual funding increases. This year, Mr. Trudeau promised to partner with Indigenous people to build a Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework.
As much as Mr. Trudeau has put in caveats, saying his agenda will take more than one mandate, he has created expectations. And prime ministers do get judged on what they accomplish in one mandate.
Mr. Trudeau’s government has done real things. It substantially increased funding for things such as infrastructure in First Nations communities; but Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said many chiefs feel the money isn’t flowing into community projects as fast as it should. It recently set aside substantial sums for Indigenous child welfare. Many argue that took too long. First Nations have had 61 long-term boil-water advisories lifted, but the government promise to lift them all won’t come due until 2021.
Yet it is important that Mr. Trudeau’s government has done Indigenous politics differently. Stephen Harper’s government saw a major initiative on First Nations education reform blow up because it had not done the community-by-community politicking to build approval. The politicians did not do politics with First Nations. Mr. Trudeau’s government is changing that. But they can’t escape pressure to deliver.
“There’s a change in the sense of dialogue,” Chief Arnold Paul of Temagami First Nation said. But “movement on substance,” he said, has been slower.
On Wednesday, two chiefs asked Mr. Trudeau what he will get done before the next election and got similar answers.
Chief Ron Ignace of Skeetchestn Indian Band noted that a committee of chiefs is working with Ottawa on legislation to protect Indigenous languages, and asked if Mr. Trudeau could guarantee it will be passed before the vote.
The answer was no. Indigenous people are co-developing the legislation, Mr. Trudeau said, and he can’t say how long it will take. “We’re going to take the time that you think is necessary to get this right.”
Chief David Jimmie, co-chair of the AFN’s fiscal committee, said First Nations want to see what the promise of a new fiscal relationship means in concrete terms. Mr. Trudeau insisted that has to be worked out, nation-to-nation, presumably with each of the 634 First Nations.
“Will we be able to define what the fiscal relationship looks like for the nation-to-nation relationship between the government of Canada and Indigenous peoples in the next 18 months? Probably not,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Indeed, certainly not.”
He suggested another way to judge his government’s success in this mandate, arguing that it has shown progress, but more importantly, set the relationship with Indigenous people on a new path, “irreversibly” changing Canada. In other words, that his government should be judged now on how it has changed the relationship, and only later on whether it met all those expectations.