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Indigenous lives and rights still ignored: Trudeau: style over substance.

WHEN HE TOOK OFFICE in November 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised a government that would bring real change. His promises to Indigenous peoples included a renewed nation-to-nation relationship, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, and significant new investments, particularly in the areas of education and housing. He also promised a review of all laws, policies, and operational practices, especially the environmental assessment process, to ensure compliance with Canada's obligations in relation to Indigenous and treaty rights. In his mandate letters to Ministers, Trudeau declared that "no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples."

Rather than a relationship committed to respect, justice, and peaceful coexistence, it is becoming clear that what is important to the Liberal government, like Canadian governments before it, is reproducing the existing colonial relationship of ongoing dispossession and erasure. Just over a year into its term, the government's track record does not measure up to its promises; it looks a lot like settler colonialism as usual, albeit with a friendlier tone.

As a number of Indigenous leaders and activists have pointed out, the government's unwillingness to follow through on material and structural change continues to harm people and condemn communities to crisis.

After the Harper regime, expectations were high, fuelled by the commitments reiterated during and after the election campaign. In December 2015, Trudeau addressed First Nations leaders at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Special Chiefs Assembly. This was a clear signal that the new government was willing to engage and listen. In his speech, the Prime Minister, to much applause, outlined his key priorities, such as immediately lifting the 2-per-cent cap on funding increases for First Nations programs and calling a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It indicated a significant change in tone and departure from the Harper government's paternalism and hostility. The bar was, of course, low after the defeat of a Prime Minister who asserted in 2009 that Canada has "no history of colonialism." In contrast, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stressed the urgency of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women by telling reporters in December 2015 that "racism and sexism in this country kill." Words clearly matter, but are not enough. "Sunny ways" have not and cannot dismantle the racist and heteropatriarchal violence of settler colonialism and capitalism.

Recommendations gather dust

While the federal government followed through on the promise to launch an inquiry into causes and patterns of violence against Indigenous women and girls in August 2016, the process and mandate of the national inquiry have not been without criticism. One of the problems is that the inquiry's terms of reference do not provide an adequate mandate to review policing. There is a long-standing pattern of violence, including sexual violence, perpetrated by police and described, for instance, in the accounts of 31 women and men who came forward in Val-d'Or in 2015 and in the 2013 report, Those Who Take Us Away. There are also concerns that the outcomes of the national inquiry may not lead to the transformative changes required to end violence against Indigenous women and girls. These concerns are justified in light of the fact that the harms colonial institutions, policies, and practices have done and continue to do to Indigenous bodies, peoples, and lands are well documented along with workable proposals for change. Many reports and hundreds of recommendations, such as those compiled by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 20 years ago and, more recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), illustrate the persistent gap between the changes Indigenous people have proposed and implementation by Canada.

In March 2016, it was evident that the Trudeau government was not putting its money where its mouth is. The federal budget earmarked $8.6 billion in spending for Indigenous peoples over five years, but, as Pamela Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, pointed out, the actual annual funding for First Nations is still within the two-per-cent cap that the Trudeau government promised to lift. In addition to the chronic underfunding of basic services in First Nation communities, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is also one of the federal departments topping the list in lapsed funding. In 2015, the Privy Council Office released data showing that, over the previous five years, INAC had held back more than $1 billion in promised spending, underspending an average of $218 million annually. This is approximately the annual amount required to achieve child welfare equity.

According to Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS), an immediate annual investment of $216 million is needed to achieve funding equity for on-reserve child welfare services. She forced the federal government to account for its racist underfunding of child and family services for First Nations children before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. In January 2016, the Tribunal issued a decision siding with the FNCFCS and the AFN, which launched the complaint in 2007. The Tribunal has already issued two compliance orders, because the Trudeau government has refused to meet its legal obligations to First Nations children. It took a recent motion introduced by NDP MP Charlie Angus for the government to admit, after initial opposition to the motion, that it is failing First Nations children and families.

Apparently, the Trudeau government does not see the urgency of adequate programs and services for First Nations children. The TRC did; child welfare equity is the first of its 94 calls to action. Prime Minister Trudeau promised that his government would implement all of the TRC's recommendations. In October 2016, historian Ian Mosby provided an update on the status of each of the 94 calls to action. Only five have been implemented. This illustrates that the federal government's talk about reconciliation is a move to affirm the status quo. It is not a stretch to suspect that talking about change is used as a strategy to avoid making actual changes, especially those not considered expedient from the state's perspective.

Calls to action ignored

Among the unheeded calls to action is the fulfillment of the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). When the UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against it. The Harper government announced in 2010 that it would reverse its stance, but qualified its endorsement by calling it an "aspirational document" that would not change Canadian laws. Implementing UNDRIP as a framework for governance that makes space for Indigenous self-determination was one of the commitments made by the new government. In the summer of 2016, however, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould clarified that the Liberal government considers the adoption of the UNDRIP into Canadian law "unworkable."

The Trudeau government's framing of what is and isn't workable probably has a lot to do with a preference for weaker domestic approval processes for resource development on Indigenous lands. One of the central principles articulated and affirmed throughout the UNDRIP is Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Article 32(2) specifies that "states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources." The refusal to adopt FPIC directly speaks to what is at stake, namely the state's investment in resource extraction and the interests of corporations and the fossil-fuel economy. Ongoing dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples is the foundation of settler capitalism and this has not changed over the last year. The Trudeau government has approved the Site C Dam hydroelectric project and the Petronas Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas project against the opposition of First Nations. In response to the LNG approval, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs stated that "[...] this government has simply picked up the previous Harper government's agenda with respect to major resource development project." The crisis in rural and urban Indigenous communities is also an environmental crisis produced by settler capitalism and the imposition of industries and infrastructure that contaminate Indigenous lands. First Nations have launched legal challenges to prevent disastrous impacts of these projects on human and non-human lives in their territories. Direct action is another strategy used to protect lands and waters within a growing Indigenous movement mobilizing against the commodification and destruction of land and life. In light of the government's prioritization of corporate interests over Indigenous well-being, rights, and environmental sustainability, these struggles will likely intensify over the term of the Liberal government. The current rash of federal pipeline approvals, including Kinder Morgan, make it all too clear where the Liberals' priorities lie.

Too costly?

Despite its promises, the Trudeau government appears to perceive justice for Indigenous peoples as too costly. In this sense, talk is literally cheap in a context where the government materially benefits from a colonial relationship that dispossesses Indigenous nations, fails to honour obligations under international and Canadian law and chronically underfunds programs and services for Indigenous peoples. Transformative change will not happen overnight. I am not suggesting that the settler state is an agent of decolonization. But after over a year in office, the Trudeau government has had ample opportunity to make a real difference by following through on its list of priorities with concrete actions and adequate investments. An easy way to start would be to eliminate discriminatory underfunding in child welfare, housing, health, education, and infrastructure, including clean drinking water. Ultimately, however, restitution of land and fundamental restructuring are foundational to the "real change" promised by Trudeau, so that continuing to disregard Indigenous lives, lands, and self-determination can no longer be considered a viable option for any government.

Caption: Photo courtesy Jon Adaskin. One of a series of portraits titled Dignity: The Strength of Indigenous Women featuring family members of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. Adaskin, who is located in Winnipeg, created these portraits using a collodion wet plate process that dates to the 1850s and which his fathertaught him. The photo shown here has been enlarged and cropped.
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Title Annotation:Short CHANGE
Author:Tomiak, Julie
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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