PM rapidly losing trust of Indigenous peoples

Indigenous Opinion

Prime Minister Trudeau
Prime Minister Trudeau

by Niigaan Sinclair
WINNIPEG – OPINION – On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to travel to Iqaluit to apologize for the federal government’s treatment of Inuit with tuberculosis from the 1940s to 1960s.

A brutal storm intervened. High winds and snow in Iqaluit made flying impossible, even closing the city.

Meanwhile, Trudeau’s flight was diverted to Newfoundland. The ceremony was rescheduled several times – before finally being cancelled.

The symbolism was uncanny.

There are now so many obstacles between Trudeau and Indigenous peoples, one wonders if a functional relationship is possible.

Let’s review.

In 2015, Trudeau promised reconciliation for Indigenous peoples and Canada. He committed to improve infrastructure and fund education appropriately. He vowed to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. He used terms like “nation to nation” when describing relationships with Indigenous nations in the country.

He also vowed to include women fully in all parts of government. He committed to gender equality in cabinet – the first prime minister to do so.

Trudeau appeared to be a prime minister for a modern Canada: feminist, pro-Indigenous, multicultural and progressive.

Then the journey began.

And things went okay for a while.

Then, issues began to emerge in the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry – eventually making the whole process dysfunctional.

Then, there were failures in the constitutionally-mandated consultations on resource projects, resulting in splits between Indigenous leadership, arrests of Indigenous activists on their own land, and the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline – leading to Cree MP Romeo Saganash announcing in Parliament that Trudeau “doesn’t give a f—-” about Indigenous rights.

There’s more. Indigenous peoples under these federal Liberals have more bureaucracy, double the Departments of Indigenous Affairs, and virtually the same poverty, over-incarceration, and mouldy houses as before.

Sure, there’s been a few highlights – 72 First Nations boil water advisories lifted – but they’re hard to see in the storm.

Then, came 2019 and the demotion of Canada’s first Indigenous Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to Veterans Affairs and her eventual resignation from cabinet over alleged political interference in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. This was directly due to her insistence to maintain her KwaKwaka’wakw values that privilege people over profit, a fact she referenced in her testimony to the justice committee investigating the affair.

It’s been quite a walk (perhaps more a crawl) of reconciliation for Trudeau with quite a few stumbles, but now it’s at a standstill.

He even appointed his loyal friend, Seamus O’Regan, to oversee Indigenous Services – a position he is woefully unprepared for but is sure to keep under control going into this fall’s election.

Getting back to Iqaluit, Trudeau’s eventually arrived and apologized Friday morning.

This was followed by the release of his statement honouring International Women’s Day.

“Advancing gender equality is a top priority for the government of Canada,” he announced. “Last year, for the first time in Canada’s history, we put gender equality at the core of the federal budget and provided important new funding for women entrepreneurs, newcomer women and women in trades.”

Critics were quick to ask how gender equality is possible when strong, ethical women refuse to work with you.

Treasury Board president Jane Philpott resigned Monday, citing support for Wilson-Raybould and a loss in confidence over Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

Now, two of Trudeau’s most important ministers – both women, one Indigenous and the other trusted by Indigenous peoples – are gone, replaced by well-known Trudeau supporters who look, think and speak like him.

Now, Trudeau’s image as a feminist, pro-Indigenous, multicultural, and progressive liberal – exactly what many Canadians like to imagine Canada to be – has virtually dissipated.

Canadians now have a right to ask who the prime minister is if he’s not these things.

To repair his image – if he even wants to do this – will require more than just waiting out the storm.

Canada’s first Indigenous Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould was demoted to Veterans Affairs before her eventual resignation from cabinet.

Jody Wilson Raybould
Jody Wilson Raybould

He needs to acknowledge his behaviour, apologize, and demonstrate concrete change.

He needs to find a way to bring Wilson-Raybould and Philpott back into cabinet – even if it raises eyebrows among the buddies and allies around him.

He also needs to stop letting people speak for him. In recent days, former Liberal Sheila Copps has called Wilson-Raybould and Philpott “inexperienced” and “ministers gone rogue” while Trudeau’s highest remaining female in cabinet, Chrystia Freeland, described Trudeau as “a feminist as a prime minister and he is a feminist as a boss”.

Um, can someone tell Copps and Freeland that calling women naive and angry is a stereotype, and feminists don’t let men boss them around?

Trudeau needs to let SNC-Lavalin, with its long record of bribery and corruption, fall apart if found guilty in its dealings with Libya.

Sure, jobs will be lost but why would Canadians want these kinds of jobs? Won’t someone else – perhaps someone more ethical – come along and replace them? Government contracts, money, and construction projects are not going away.

The reality is that Trudeau still has a chance to recover from recent events, but this grows smaller every day.

If there’s anything I know about broken relationships, it’s that disagreements and harms never get better with time. The distance turns to silence. The silence turns to resentment. The resentment turns to anger.

The only choices Trudeau has now have to do with humility, honesty, and responsibility. All else leads to nowhere.

His current path may lead back to power, of course, but women and Indigenous peoples won’t come with him.

And remember this: denying and erasing these groups is what got Canada into this mess in the first place.

As of now, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have vowed to remain part of the Liberal caucus and the party.

Their commitment, patience, and bravery are virtually all that’s left in this Liberal party.

You can’t reschedule relationships, though. They need more than a sorry.

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 9, 2019. Republished with the permission of the author