While visiting an isolated reserve for the first time as prime minister, Justin Trudeau acknowledged that Canada has "discriminated against Indigenous children for generations" when it comes to funding child welfare.
Trudeau spent Thursday in Shoal Lake 40, a reserve of around 250 people located along the Ontario and Manitoba border that has been on a boil water advisory for two decades. He was there as part of an upcoming VICELAND documentary set to be released later this spring that focuses on hardships faced by Indigenous youth in Canada.
His visit comes at a time when national attention has homed in on a number of health and socioeconomic crises impacting Indigenous peoples across the country — from suicide attempts to illnesses and decrepit housing. The community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario made international headlines this month after more than 100 people there attempted suicide. And this week, Kashechewan, also in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency after the threat of flooding had them planning to evacuate 700 people.
In an interview with VICE News during his Shoal Lake 40 visit, Trudeau was asked about a recent ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, that found the federal government discriminates against First Nations children living on reserves by not providing the same level of child welfare funding that children living off reserve are entitled to.
"We have discriminated against Indigenous children for generations, for decades, for centuries," said Trudeau, who pointed to his government's recent budget that allocates what he describes as "never-before-seen levels of funding for Indigenous communities" at $8.4 billion over the next five years.
"Is it enough? No, no it's not. Is it going to fix everything overnight? Absolutely not," he said. "We have an awful lot of work to do in the coming years, in the coming decades, to get this relationship right."
He said there are actions the government can take immediately, listing off what young people on Shoal Lake 40 told him they needed: more counsellors, more people to talk to who can understand them, more after school activities. "Not crazy demands," he said. "Not things that are beyond what any kid in this country should be able to expect."
The prime minister went on to discuss his government's plans to repeal the Indian Act — the piece of controversial federal legislation that dictates the way First Nations reserves govern themselves. Earlier this month, the justice minister told Parliament the Act was akin to shackles on First Nations peoples.
For Trudeau, the Act does not make sense for Canada. "The fact that the federal government controls so completely Indigenous peoples from when they're born, to executing their will, there are things that simply make no sense anymore in a modern and free country."
Trudeau continued that overhauling the act and restoring the damage could be a lengthy process. "If you asked a community of Indigenous leaders, 'okay, let's magic wand away the Indian Act tomorrow,' they'd say no, not tomorrow," he said.
"Some communities will be able to move off of it within the coming months or years, many more will take more years, even perhaps decades."
Trudeau's visit to Shoal Lake 40 came amid calls for him to visit a number of other First Nations across the country who continue to grapple with suicide crises and poor living conditions. The chief of Attawapiskat told APTN this week he hoped the prime minister would stop in to his community, which has seen more than 100 suicide attempts since September.
But Trudeau wouldn't commit to a date. "I look forward to going there. I look forward to getting out right across the country. And it's just a question of when," he said.
"But the other thing that we need to highlight is that … there are thousands upon thousands of communities like this that shouldn't have to go through a period of emergency to get the kind of attention that the communities are getting now," said Trudeau. "We should be creating solutions that won't require the prime minister to drop in a helicopter to show that we are taking this seriously."
Trudeau met with young people, elders, and community leaders on Shoal Lake 40, where he delivered bottled water and sat down for a spaghetti lunch with middle schoolers in their cafeteria.
Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky urged Trudeau to act on his promises. "Your words are welcome, but unfortunately, we have a whole museum full of fine Canadian promises that are unfilled," Redsky wrote in a statement following the visit. "Achieving a respectful, equitable nation to nation relationship is going to take real stamina."
"Canadians really need to look in the mirror," he continued. "Our experience is that Canada has been a racist, colonial liar and thief. It's a sad fact that needs to be acknowledged so can all move on … For the sake of all our children, I'm urging you to end the patterns of the paste and be the collaborative partner and ally Canada promised to be."
Members of the community played a traditional healing song for Justin Trudeau as he departed at the end of the day. "We need you," the singer told Trudeau before he got into his helicopter. "Because of the hardships we're having here."
Trudeau responded with thanks. "I have heard you," he said. "I have had reinforced for me how important it is to build a renewed relationship … And I want to give a special shout out for the young people I got to talk to today who inspired me and challenged me, and reminded me of all that is at stake here."