What ever happened to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most important relationship?
The first mandate letters Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave his cabinet ministers in 2015 said no relationship was more important to him, and to the country, than the one with Indigenous Peoples. He called for a new nation-to-nation relationship — one based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. He promised to end boil-water advisories in First Nations communities within five years. He said constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations are a sacred obligation. "I know that renewing our relationship is an ambitious goal. But I am equally certain that it is one we can, and will, achieve if we work together," Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations in December 2015. "This is a responsibility I take seriously, and I have instructed my government to do the same." Eight years later, the shiny election-style promises about advancing reconciliation and forging a new path forward seem to have dulled for First Nations, Métis and Inuit who are on the front lines advocating for their communities. And with the Liberals expected to focus more heavily on housing and other cost-of-living issues this fall in a bid to reverse the trend of sagging support in the polls, it is unclear whether that relationship still tops the list of priorities. Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, whose department oversees programs involving access to services such as drinking water, child welfare, housing and health care, said she has seen the relationship become stronger, but righting historic wrongs takes time. "What I have seen is an increased trust in the commitment to the ongoing work of the relationship," Hajdu said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press. "As much as I think some Canadians would like to turn the page and not talk about this, Indigenous people are still living the reality of a colonial country every single day," she added. "So that trust is actually super fragile and super important to protect." Trust might be hard to quantify, but there are ways to track the Liberal government's progress on the promises it has made to Indigenous Peoples. Many of those promises are outlined in the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated both the historic and ongoing harms of the residential school system in Canada and recommended specific ways to restore relations. The Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University, publishes a yearly report on the government's progress. The 2022 report concluded just two of the recommendations were fulfilled last year, bringing the total to 13. The institute said at this rate work on the calls to action will not be done until 2065. Not all the calls to action are the sole responsibility of the federal government, including the July 2022 papal apology. Trudeau had personally asked Pope Francis to issue the apology in Canada, and the federal government spent at least $55 million to support the visit. But the content of the apology was considered lacking, including by making no mention of sexual abuse, and so the Yellowhead Institute considers that call to action to be incomplete. Hajdu's office also pointed to progress on other calls to action since the report came out, such as announcing in June that a site had been chosen for the Residential Schools National Monument on Parliament Hill. Hayden King, executive director of Yellowhead Institute, said Ottawa seemed spurred into action when Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced in May 2021 that ground-penetrating radar had detected potential unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Three of the commission's calls to action were completed that month: appointing an Indigenous languages commissioner, establishing a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to be celebrated Sept. 30, and changing Canada's citizenship oath to include an obligation to upholding treaties with Indigenous Peoples. Since those "easy calls" were answered, progress has been "modest," King said, compared to the "tremendous" amount of activity after the Liberals were elected in 2015. "It was the most active period of legislation — period — on Indigenous issues in Canadian history since Confederation," King said. Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said federal governments have set up a pattern where they create policies that harm Indigenous Peoples and then Canadians pay the cost when courts side with communities. In July, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal approved a $23.4-billion settlement agreement for First Nations children and their families who were harmed by the federal government's underfunding of child welfare services. Blackstock has been negotiating the settlement alongside the Assembly of First Nations. The settlement comes more than 15 years after the two organizations jointly launched a human rights complaint that sparked a years-long legal battle with Ottawa around allegations that its underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services amounted to discrimination, and that First Nations children were denied equal access to support including school supplies and medical equipment. But settling what she calls the "biggest policy failure in Canadian history" is not something to celebrate, Blackstock said. "Stop hurting the kids today and the ones to come tomorrow. That's the No. 1 thing that people want, and that money will never get back the childhood they deserve." Hajdu pointed to the settlement coming with another $20 billion that will go to revamping the First Nations child welfare system. She said this recognizes the need to shift from having to compensate for past harms to getting it right in the first place through "better tools of self-determination and equity in place so that these kinds of things never happen again." The broken promise to end all boil-water advisories by 2021 is often cited as another example of how the Liberal government has failed to live up to expectations on this file. "It was a really ambitious goal and for those of us that didn't much understand what water and water delivery looks like at First Nations, it seemed like a really attainable goal," Hajdu said. "But, in fact, water and water delivery in First Nations is super complicated." The federal government says it has lifted 143 long-term drinking water advisories since November 2015. Hajdu said most of the 28 long-term advisories, affecting 26 communities, are in remote areas where access to infrastructure is a greater challenge. Still, she said more than 96 per cent of First Nations now live in a community where they can access clean drinking water from the tap. As for the rest: "We will finish this job." Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor at McMaster University who leads the Indigenous water research program Ohneganos Ohnegahdę:gyo, said the scope of the Liberal government's water initiative has been narrow. It focused on boil-water advisories, rather than access to safe drinking water on reserves in general, where infrastructure is chronically underfunded. Hajdu is expected to introduce legislation this fall, co-developed with First Nations, Métis and Inuit, to address some of the bigger barriers to sustainable access to safe drinking water. Carol McBride, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said that despite the hope she felt in 2015, she feels Indigenous Peoples are on the back burner. In 2019, the federal government released the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which included 231 calls to justice directed at governments, institutions, industries and Canadians. Two years later, the government released a national action plan that sought to address those calls. McBride's association has been keeping track of the government's annual performance on implementing the plan, and called Ottawa's progress a "failure" in its most recent report. Few of the promised actions have been completed, while others have seen "marginal progress" or remain untouched, the June 2023 report says. Hajdu said she understands the "impatience." But she said all levels of government need to be on the same page in order to get things done. Her job, she said, is to push the department and the government to take action as quickly as possible, and to push other jurisdictions to "take reconciliation as seriously as we do." She expects to bring that push to housing, too, as the Liberals prioritize that issue this fall. The Assembly of First Nations said last year there was a need for $44 billion to address current on-reserve housing needs alone, plus another $16 billion to account for projected population growth to 2040 — a figure Hajdu had publicly highlighted ahead of the 2022 budget. That budget ended up committing $4 billion over seven years for building and repairing housing in Indigenous communities, which many viewed as a disappointment. This year's federal budget earmarked $4 billion over seven years, starting in 2024-25, to implement an urban, rural and northern Indigenous housing strategy through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. that is co-developed with First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Hajdu said taking a self-determination approach to the housing issue will help fill the gap in a way that goes beyond money, including the need for more land to build on. But she said that when speaking with her colleagues, she has also been framing the First Nations housing issue as a housing issue, full stop. "You can't separate First Nations housing from everyone else," she said. "It's all part of a continuum of the need for better and more affordable housing in this country, regardless of which community you live in." It has been nearly six years since Trudeau split the Indigenous affairs portfolio into two separate departments: Indigenous Services, which Hajdu oversees, and Crown-Indigenous Relations, for which Gary Anandasangaree became the minister in July. Hajdu said she has seen a lot change for the better in her corner of the government bureaucracy, including by having so many Indigenous public servants, including deputy minister Gina Wilson, working in the department. "But transforming a system from one that's primarily about controlling communities to one that's empowering communities? That's really hard." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.