Five months after the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) declared Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples a genocide and persisting national crisis, Indigenous rights were relevant, pressing topics in the 2019 federal election.
So now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has retained power, albeit with a minority government, how will Canada approach reconciliation?
According to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of UBC’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a professor in the Allard School of Law, navigating a minority government is an “opportunity” to focus on certain key issues pertinent to Canada’s Indigenous population.
“I would hope that other progressive parties would look at forming an alliance that will be based on respecting and supporting human rights and the rights of Indigenous people,” she said.
In his 2019 campaign, Trudeau affirmed that if re-elected, LIberals would “close the gap with better services” and continue along the path towards reconciliation.
Their platform included the promise to take action to fully implementing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) Calls to Action and those of the National Inquiry into MMIWG’s Calls for Justice.
Acknowledging that in the past Canada has failed to live up to treaties and agreements made with Indigenous peoples, the Liberals also promised to design a new framework through which existing treaties will be reviewed, maintained and enforced. They pledged to carry out the work by establishing a new National Treaty Commissioner’s Office that involves more Indigenous participation.
Their platform also mentioned a transition away from the Indian Act as part of their larger stated goal to advance self-determination. To this end, they have promised to work with First Nations to redesign additions-to-reserves policies, which give more land to existing reserves. They also committed to working with Indigenous partners to repatriate cultural property and ancestral remains.
But over the course of their first term, Liberals received criticism from Indigenous groups and activists for falling short of their promises, and they’ll have to work to rebuild trust as they establish a new government.
The party was criticized for buying the Trans Canada pipeline last year, which many Indigenous groups and activists strongly oppose, and the expansion is still facing legal challenges over whether or not Indigenous groups were adequately consulted.
Turpel-Lafond mentioned that one of the key issues the government needs to sufficiently address is discrimination against First Nations communities in the child welfare system.
The Liberal party is currently seeking judicial review over a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found that, since 2006, Indigenous families on-reserve have been given insufficient child-welfare from the federal government compared to off-reserve families whose welfare is funded by provincial agencies. As a result, many Indigenous families could not afford to care for their children, and they were then taken and put into the foster care system.
The Tribunal ruled that the federal government must pay $40,000 to each First Nations child who was taken from their family since January 1, 2006, and it must make additional $40,000 payments to each parent or grandparent whose children were taken — adding up to as much as $8 billion in all.
Although he said he agrees with the Tribunal’s findings and the federal government’s obligation to pay, Trudeau requested the review because he claims the Liberal government wasn’t given enough time to make a plan for payment by the Tribunal’s December 10 deadline, provoking criticism from Indigenous leaders, activists, and the NDP and Green party.
“When we talk about the rights of Indigenous people and any issues of discrimination, they are too important to have a piecemeal approach,” believes Turpel-Lafond. “It would be good if they had a more broad-based approach.”
She mentioned that the parties should work together across party lines to effectively address matters of such gravity.
In addition to the issue of discrimination in the child welfare system, Turpel-Lafond believes that clean drinking water, adequate housing and barriers to health and support services are critical issues where work is required.
Of particular importance for students is also the matter of investing in education for Indigenous youth, said Turpel-Lafond.
“A lot of the election platform was geared to an older age cohort,” she stated. “And I think that investment in the lives of young people, particularly those pursuing training and education, is significant and there’s a need for that.”
Finally, Turpel-Lafond also mentioned that having sufficient Indigenous representation in cabinet membership will be an important step in moving forward.
Scandal befell the Liberal Party in August 2019 when Prime Minister Trudeau fired two cabinet ministers, the first Indigenous Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott, over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“I think many Indigenous people will be watching to see who is selected and whether they are capable of handling these files, and making sure that the work can be done quickly to address these issues.”