In December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced five key policies that would help fulfill the goal of a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples.” Almost a full year later, Trudeau reiterated that “we were elected on a solemn commitment to create reconciliation with Indigenous peoples across this country.”
But for some Indigenous people, there’s very little to show for such rhetoric going into Canada’s 150th anniversary.
“I think 2017 is going to be the year where the trenches get dug and the battle lines get drawn in a very tangible way,” says Caleb Behn, a Dene lawyer from West Moberly First Nation in northeastern British Columbia.
“That’s the consequence of Trudeau’s betrayal and the fact that most Canadians don’t want to confront the fact that you live on stolen land and have been repressing people you promised to treat honourably for over one hundred years.”
Despite significant opposition from many Indigenous nations, the federal Liberals approved the construction of two major oilsands pipelines and a massive liquefied natural gas export terminal, granted permits to the Site C dam in northern British Columbia and resisted calls to intervene in the Muskrat Falls dam controversy in Labrador.
In addition, the government backtracked on a seemingly clear promise to “fully adopt” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), fought against a lawsuit launched by survivors of the ‘Sixties Scoop,’ dropped an appeal that would have required the Catholic Church to help fund healing programs for residential school survivors, and continued to face criticism for a system of delivering welfare to on reserve children that has been called “systemically racist”.
Despite the prime minister’s claims otherwise, slow progress has been made to significantly reduce the number of boil water advisories on reserves. Compounding that problem, Trudeau broke his platform commitment to “immediately” lift the the two per cent cap on funding for Indigenous communities, which remains in place.
In October, it was calculated that only five recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been fulfilled, despite the Liberal government having pledged to implement all 94 of them.
However, Trudeau has assured that his government has acted on 41 of the “calls to action.” Critics have noted that some key recommendations such as the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women are “toothless” and lack legal power.
“There’s too much tinkering happening and not enough transformative change,” says Khelsilem, a language instructor from Squamish Nation. “They’re telling First Nations people to be patient and hold on and wait when we’ve been waiting for decades for some of these things to change.”
All of this paves the way for 2017.
The immediate focus for many Indigenous people is on resource extraction projects, especially following the federal pipeline approvals of Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain and Enbridge Line 3 on November 29.
For some, the approvals undermine the government’s commitment to implement UNDRIP, which contained a key article that many Indigenous communities interpret as a “veto” over resource projects; in short, Article 32 of UNDRIP is a legally complex argument that attempts to move the ball from “duty to consult” to “free, prior and informed consent.”
A similar argument has been made by the recently formed Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, which has been signed by over 100 Indigenous organizations.
During the last federal election, Trudeau responded to the question “would ‘no’ mean ‘no’ under your government?” with “absolutely.” The prime minister has also repeated the phrase: “Governments grant permits, communities grant permission.”
However, in a recent interview, Trudeau said that Indigenous nations “don’t have a veto” over resource development projects.
A few weeks earlier, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr said about potential pipeline protests that “we live under the rule of law,” which some Indigenous people considered an implied threat of armed repression similar to the Oka Crisis of 1990 and recent standoff near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Carr later publicly apologized for the remark, and personally called Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon — who participated in the Oka Crisis — to help avoid a walkout at a recent special assembly of First Nations chiefs.
Charlene Aleck, councilor for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver, says it doesn’t make sense to approve new pipelines and continue to talk about a “nation-to-nation” relationship.
“We’ve already put forward our opposition to Kinder Morgan,” says Aleck, whose nation has launched multiple court challenges against the proposed pipeline. “It’s not news that we’re opposing this project. If we can’t even get this issue talked about, then you can’t talk about ‘reconciliation’ which involves hundreds of years of oppression.”
Erica Violet Lee, a student and writer from Saskatoon and Thunderchild First Nation, adds that “the reason we’re living in poverty now is because of centuries of violent attempts to remove us from our lands. Native people deserve safe housing, clean water, and healthy food to eat without having to sell our souls to TransCanada, Kinder Morgan, De Beers, and Enbridge in order to pay for it.”
Khelsilem says there are some potential bright spots for 2017.
That includes the newly announced Indigenous Language Act, which he says is “really positive, depending on what they’re going to incorporate into it and whether it’s going to have the strength that it needs to be effective,” adding that announcements around increased funding for education could be “really important and powerful.”
Meanwhile, leaders of national Aboriginal organizations have advised that people be patient. Métis National Council vice-president David Chartrand said after a recent meeting with Trudeau that “we can’t be putting him in a position that we expect him to do it all immediately, [that by] tomorrow morning our problems are resolved. It ain’t going to happen.”
But many agree that cabinet approvals of resource projects without gaining the “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous nations negate any small improvements made.
Behn suggests that Indigenous water defenders will be increasingly attacked with “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — know more commonly as SLAPP — which are often deployed to create “cleavage between frontline grassroots Indigenous people.”
As a result, he suggests the upcoming election in British Columbia may be one of the most contentious in history and will “hyper-catalyze” the region.
“You’re going to get creeping militarization,” Behn says. “Industry and government are going to try and leverage as much as they can from these vacuous words like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘nation-to-nation.’ And people aren’t going to buy it.”