Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a frank admission in the House of Commons Wednesday during a speech in which he vowed to transform Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples.

"Some look at our government's promises [to Indigenous peoples] with skepticism," he said. "You can't say it's not justified. After all, we are not the first government to promise we would do things differently."

That's sadly true. In his speech, Mr. Trudeau said he would remove the legal roadblocks that have held Indigenous peoples back for 150 years. But no ones knows what this will look like, because it will only come after lengthy consultation of the kind so often held on Indigenous issues in the past.

Mr. Trudeau's thinking is easy enough to understand. It has been 36 years since aboriginal and treaty rights were enshrined in the Constitution, but that milestone hasn't produced the outcome Indigenous people were expecting.

"Instead of outright recognizing and affirming Indigenous rights, as we promised," Mr. Trudeau said, "Indigenous peoples were forced to prove, time and time again, through costly and drawn-out court challenges, that their rights existed."

He says he will put an end to that, thanks to "new legislation and a policy that would make the recognition and implementation of rights the basis for all relations between Indigenous peoples and the federal government."

In theory, this means the government will no longer force First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to prove they have the right to independent jurisdiction over things like education, health and social services, not to mention political and economic rights over any land they hold title to.

The goal would seem to be uncontested self-governance for Indigenous peoples that want it. That notion is reinforced by the fact that Mr. Trudeau's speech was informed by the 1992 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

The report bluntly stated that, in spite of the Constitution, Ottawa had prevented "aboriginal nations from assuming the broad powers of governance that would permit them to fashion their own institutions and work out their own solutions to social, economic and political problems."

Is the government finally going to make Indigenous self-government a reality? That's the implication, and many people will feel hopeful about it. But as Mr. Trudeau himself advised, you can't say skepticism isn't justified.

Interact with The Globe