Rebuilding Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people is part of the legacy Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to leave, he told chiefs gathered at a major Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa Tuesday afternoon.
“We have to help demonstrate with you that everything we do starts from recognizing the rights you already have that you shouldn’t have to take us to court to prove that you have,” said Trudeau, answering a question from Chief Wayne Christian of Splatsin First Nation in the B.C. Interior.
Trudeau said if his government is able to accomplish that, all future Canadian governments will have to follow suit.
“We will start from a place of partnership – the place we started all those centuries ago and unfortunately lost our way from. That is the legacy that I look forward to building with all of you in the coming years,” he said.
Christian had told Trudeau, in a question-and-answer session, that he had confronted Trudeau’s father Pierre in 1980 and accused him of lying to the world about what was happening in Canada to Indigenous people. The younger Trudeau’s account of Indigenous people’s experience of “humiliation, neglect and abuse” in a United Nations speech in 2017 was welcome, he said.
“I’m grateful that you actually corrected that when you went to the UN and made your statements,” Christian told him. “You let the world know the issues going on in Canada. So we really need to think about this and where are we going to go from here.”
The chiefs received Trudeau warmly, presenting him with a buckskin vest, and National Chief Perry Bellegarde shook his hand after he spoke.
Trudeau followed his own minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, Carolyn Bennett, who’d spoken earlier in the day and compared Canada’s formal way of relating to Indigenous people to “a big, leaky old colonial boat.”
“For years we’ve tried to patch this old wreck and we’ve been bailing it with a thimble. We all know that this isn’t going to work,” Bennett said.
Bennett said Canada needs to keep up with Indigenous people, their aspirations and their goals.
“I believe Canada needs to get out of that colonialist boat, run it ashore, leave it to rot or at least put it up, drydock and rebuild it. We need a vessel that can navigate the changing waters, one that can keep pace with your vision and aspiration. One that is no longer holding back the promise for your children and grandchildren and their grandchildren,” Bennett said.
Moving away from the 1876 Indian Act that largely defines relations between Canada and Indigenous Peoples is a mutual goal and repeated that the federal government will introduce legislation on Indigenous child-and-family services in the new year, written in co-operation with Indigenous groups.
“We want to work on this new ship and we want to get it in the water because we know the current is with us.”
Bellegarde told the chiefs that he wants to see a few key pieces of legislation passed before the House of Commons rises in June and an election campaign takes over federal politics, including the child-welfare legislation, the long-awaited Indigenous Languages Act, and NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill, which seeks to ensure Canada’s laws line up with the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Bellegarde also spoke about climate change and asked the chiefs and delegates to support a carbon tax as one way to head it off.
He talked about putting his organization’s “Closing the Gap” document in front of each party during the last federal election. It outlined priorities on everything from the environment to Indigenous languages.
Bellegarde said First Nations voters were responsible for flipping 22 ridings in the 2015 federal election.
“You people running in federal elections, you better listen to First Nations issues now if you want to get elected,” he said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May are all on the program for the third day of the chiefs’ assembly, on Thursday.