From the floor of the House of Commons, the prime minister pledged to change that. At long last, Ottawa would work with Canada’s Indigenous peoples — hundreds of First Nations, Métis nations, and Inuit peoples of the North — on a new relationship, one in which the federal government recognizes their rights in new legislation and dismantles the colonial dynamic that has been so damaging for so long.
In short, it was key to the reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples that Trudeau and his Liberals have championed at every turn since they took power in 2015.
And it fell apart.
Protesters denounced the initiative in rallies across the country. The Assembly of First Nations charged the process was dictated by Ottawa and called for it to stop. It even caused a rift in Trudeau’s cabinet between then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and others, according to Canada’s former top bureaucrat. In the end, the promised legislation was shelved, and the government shifted to tinkering with internal policy and passing bills to support Indigenous languages and child welfare.
It’s just one chapter in the story of reconciliation over the past four years, a deep and complex challenge the Trudeau Liberals hoisted on their own shoulders through their words and actions in government. Billions have poured into infrastructure and social services, yet advocates and leaders say there are serious shortfalls. And while efforts to “renew” the relationship have been welcomed, many also doubt the government’s willingness to truly challenge the colonial foundations that have wreaked so much harm.
With less than three months before the next federal election, Indigenous leaders and policy experts say the prominence of reconciliation under this government has brought some positive changes, but also halting progress and disappointment.
“When we talk about the niceties of establishing and maintaining these respectful relationships, that also has to be married with tangible, substantive change,” said Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
“So long as we have these massive inequalities, we can’t really begin to have that conversation of reconciliation.”
But the conversation, however fraught it may be, is happening.
Shortly after the election, it was clear to leaders of major Indigenous organizations that a shift had occurred in Ottawa. It was easier to book meetings with ministers and senior staff — even with Trudeau himself, who kept his promise to meet regularly with Indigenous leaders.
“It took us by surprise that the reconciliation agenda was such a central agenda for the Trudeau government,” said Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, by phone from Iqaluit.
After years of grassroots activism calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Liberals launched one. They gave $92 million to the process, and though they refused a request to extend its deadline, the prime minister vowed to work on its calls for change and accepted its conclusion that centuries of policy and failures amount to “colonial genocide.”
Trudeau has also apologized for Canada’s removal of sick Inuit from their homes in the middle of the 20th century, and exonerated historical figures who were betrayed by the Canadian state — including the famous Cree Chief Poundmaker and six Tsilhqot’in warriors who were invited to peace talks but then arrested and hanged in 1864.
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said these gestures are more than symbolic — they are “about telling the truth about the history of Canada and how it was made,” a key element of the reconciliation equation.
“There really is no comparison. It’s night and day,” he added, contrasting the openness of the Liberals with governments that came before, even if the resulting dialogue — as seen with the rights recognition promise — isn’t always successful.
“My job as national chief is to influence policy and legislation, and in order to do that, you have to have access,” he said. “We’ve had that access, and now I can look at some of the results.”
He pointed to money the Liberal government has earmarked for Indigenous peoples since its first budget. Annual funding for health services, education, children’s programs, housing and more has jumped by 50 per cent, from $11 billion in 2015-16 to more than $17 billion slated for 2021-22. By Bellegarde’s count, that’s an extra $21.4 billion over five years, the equivalent of “four Kelowna Accords.”
With that money, the Liberals have — among other things — pushed annual education funding for Indigenous children up to $1,500 per student, funded an Inuit suicide prevention strategy, and started to tackle unsafe water supplies that have existed in some communities since the 1990s. As of June, 85 drinking advisories had been lifted and 58 remain, as Ottawa pursues its goal of lifting all advisories by March 2021.
Yet striking disparities remain. A recent study found 47 per cent of children with First Nations status live in poverty, more than two-and-a-half times the national average. Evidence gathered by the national inquiry indicates Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other women in Canada. The annual rate of tuberculosis among Inuit is an astonishing 290 times higher than the rate among non-Indigenous Canadians, according to a 2018 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“There’s still a huge socio-economic gap between First Nations and the rest of Canadians. And that gap is not going to close in one, two or three years,” Bellegarde said. “You need long-term, sustained investments.”
For Cindy Blackstock, these efforts have so far been piecemeal and insufficient. As executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, she launched a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal more than a decade ago. In 2016, the tribunal ruled the federal government racially discriminated against hundreds of thousands of First Nations children by inadequately funding welfare services.
Blackstock said this ruling, and a series that followed declaring Ottawa was still violating the call to increase funding, pushed the government to funnel more money towards children’s health, but she’s still pushing for a ruling to extend mandatory funding to those without “status” as defined under the federal Indian Act.
“They frame things as reconciliation that are basic human rights for everybody else,” she said.
Sitting in her office off Parliament Hill, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett acknowledged that suspicions linger from centuries of colonialism. She rhymed off the injustices of residential schools and the Indian Act, legislation she called “infantilizing” for provisions that banned Indigenous cultural ceremonies and restricted movement off reserves and “villagized” the nations that existed before Canada into “Indian bands” on reserves that were created by the federal government.
“As colonizers, we just continued to make bad decisions that were visited upon nations that were thriving,” she said.
“After 150 years of broken promises, there’s a fair amount of cynicism that remains, and we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other to actually rebuild the trust.”
A big accomplishment in that regard, in Bennett’s eyes, is the change in the government’s approach to help Indigenous nations come together after being split apart and displaced for so many years. The Liberals abandoned the long-standing practice of issuing loans to First Nations that want to negotiate modern treaties or self-government agreements, for example. Now they offer grants, and have forgiven $1.4 billion in previous loans.
Meanwhile, a majority of Indian Act bands have started conversations with Ottawa about self-government agreements, a number that represents more than 700 communities and a million people, according to a government official speaking on background. The official said Ottawa has also dropped the expectation that such deals are final, making negotiations less risky because they’re not seen as a single chance to strike a perfect deal, but can evolve over time.
The ultimate goal, said Bennett, is to transition all Métis, Inuit and First Nations communities to “move out from under the Indian Act” into arrangements with more authority over their own services and governing structures.
“That change in the relationship from a denial of rights to a recognition of rights, and working in good faith to implement those rights—I think that has been a sea change,” she said.
But some argue this isn’t enough. A 2018 report from Ryerson University’s Yellowhead Institute, for instance, concluded Ottawa was guiding First Nations toward a “narrow model” of self-government based on service delivery in select jurisdictions — child welfare, language programs, education — that does not address bigger questions of authority over the land that in many cases has never been ceded to the Canadian state.
In his 2017 “Reconciliation Manifesto” published after his death, Secwepemc leader Arthur Manuel called for a “greatly expanded” land base for Indigenous nations to serve as an economic foundation for future governments that exist not as junior partners to Ottawa and the provinces, but as another order of government that stands on equal footing. Manuel accused the Trudeau Liberals of turning their back on this vision by failing to implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
That declaration includes the right to “free, prior and informed” consent that has been so contentious in the fight against resource projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the natural gas pipe through Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.
“They have been doing a cynical dance around the substantial elements,” Manuel wrote, “while they pick the low-hanging fruits that fit into their programs and services dependency basket.”
Courtney Skye, a research fellow at Yellowhead, said the Liberals haven’t honestly reckoned with the meaning of their promises to renew the “nation-to-nation” relationship, which to many means a return to something like sovereignty for Indigenous governments, something that exists outside the control of the colonial structure of Canada.
For Skye, reconciliation isn’t predicated on a federal government that’s willing to hold it aloft as an ideal. Indigenous peoples and their cultures and values have persisted through centuries of state policies designed to eradicate them, and she said advocacy for a better future isn’t going to stop any time soon.
“That’s going to continue beyond the policy imagination of the Liberals,” she said. “It’s the reality of Canada.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga