Trudeau's UN speech failed to admit ongoing role in Indigenous problems: Palmater
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech at the United Nations on Indigenous issues was “misleading” and attempted to “historicize” the source of problems facing First Nations rather than take responsibility for the government’s ongoing role, a leading Indigenous advocate says.
Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, gave Trudeau credit for taking a “monumentally different attitude” toward Indigenous issues than past prime ministers.
But Trudeau’s acknowledgement of past atrocities, such as residential schools, did little to confront modern failings that underpin existing issues, such as boil water advisories, ongoing land claims and treaty rights cases being fought in court.
“Despite the beautiful words and moving speech, it really does a lot to mislead both the international community and Canadians here at home about the current realities and where the responsibility of the current reality of First Nations lies,” Palmater told CTV News Channel on Thursday.
“The international community may have thought that this was a great speech. But the reality is completely different on the ground here in Canada.”
In his speech, Trudeau said there is a “legacy of colonialism in Canada.” He drew a clear line between the past displacement of Indigenous people, broken treaty promises and the horrors of residential schools and today’s issues.
"There are, today, children living on reserve in Canada who cannot safely drink, or bathe in, or even play in the water that comes out of their taps. There are Indigenous parents who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won't run away, or take their own lives in the night... And for far too many Indigenous women, life in Canada includes threats of violence so frequent and severe that Amnesty International has called it 'a human rights crisis.”
Trudeau described Canada as “a work in progress” and said that better infrastructure on reserves, improved housing and restructuring the Indian Affairs department are steps his government is taking to improve quality of life.
Palmater said Indigenous Canadians need less words and more action.
“I think most First Nations here at home are really going to see through that rhetoric that he’s always had great words but when it comes to substantive action on the ground in First Nations, he falls flat right across the board,” she said.
‘No mention’ of land claims
Palmater accused Trudeau of avoiding some of the more complex problems facing Indigenous Canadians in his speech.
“If you even look at the more fundamental issues, he didn’t mention a whole lot about addressing land issues here. He had no problem acknowledging that they were ancestral territories, but in terms of addressing the outstanding land claims here, no mention.”
Still, Palmater said Trudeau’s address demonstrated a monumental shift in tone from previous federal leaders.
“Well I think in fairness he deserves some credit for having a monumentally different attitude and discourse on Indigenous issues compared to former Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper or even other former prime ministers,” she said.
“His message was one of positivity and making amends and moving forward and acknowledging, to some extent, some of the atrocities of the past.”
Trudeau’s message ‘refreshing’
Others Indigenous leaders had a different impression. Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national Inuit organization, said it was significant to see Canada’s top politician acknowledge existing problems back home.
"Often Canada touts itself as being this wonderful country with no blemishes at all in the international realm. It is refreshing to see a prime minister be on ... such a large international stage and admit there are huge challenges for basic respect of rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and also pledge to do something about it," Obed said.
Trudeau’s speech also faced criticism in the House of Commons from NDP indigenous critic Romeo Saganash, a residential school survivor, who also blamed the Liberals for failing to address boil water advisories.
"How can the prime minister keep claiming to the world that this is the most important relationship when in reality, he is letting them down?" Saganash said.
With files from The Canadian Press