Facing a skeptical crowd of Indigenous leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t back down from his position to give the thumbs up to two controversial oil pipelines in Canada, instead suggesting that opinion was intensely divided on the issue.
“I know that there are people in this room who deeply disagree with our position to move ahead with the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Tuesday.
“I know there are people here who agree with that decision,” he added.
Last week, Trudeau approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will nearly triple the existing capacity to 890,000 barrels of oil a day from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, B.C., along with the lesser known 1,659-kilometre Line 3 pipeline. He rejected the Northern Gateway project that could have damaged the Great Bear Rainforest.
Some chiefs, like Serge Simon of Kanesatake in Quebec, have said Trudeau’s actions amount to a “betrayal” and that he “backstabbed” First Nations with his approvals.
Simon had reportedly been organizing an action to protest Trudeau at the gathering, in reaction to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr’s earlier comments that if protests against Trans Mountain weren’t peaceful, then the government, “defence forces” and “police forces” will “ensure that people will be kept safe.”
Simon saw that statement as a direct threat to First Nations, given his history at the 1990 standoff at Oka, where a soldier stabbed a Mohawk teenager, and a police officer was shot dead.
The morning of the assembly, attendees said they had heard a rumour about a walkout, but no one knew for sure. But an hour before Trudeau’s speech, Carr called Simon to apologize, the CBC reported. During his speech, Trudeau, very quietly, acknowledged Carr’s apology.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde has been trying to strike a similar position to Trudeau’s, telling CBC this week that some First Nations leaders supported pipeline projects but were getting drowned out. “It’s about who’s the loudest sometimes,” he said.
Even so, at the meeting, Bellegarde said one area of common ground with Indigenous groups was that oil had to eventually be abandoned.
“The world we live in today is far too dependent on fossil fuels,” boomed Bellegarde in a morning address. “The way forward is for all of us to move toward a future based on cleaner, greener renewable energy.”
Before Trudeau’s speech, an AFN “elder’s statement” on the environment, read aloud on stage, also made it clear that Indigenous communities intend to be a louder voice against the destruction of the environment.
Indigenous peoples must be “agents of change” rather than passive on the crucial issue of climate change and the protection of water, read the statement.
For his part, Trudeau had little else to say on oil and pipelines. In his speech, he focused instead on messages laden with optimism and on the issue of reconciliation. That was enough for the crowd to give him several cheers.
In particular, Trudeau announced his government would enact an “Indigenous languages act, co-developed with indigenous peoples,” to a standing ovation.
He also cited progress his government has made ending the scourge of First Nations drinking water advisories. Trudeau promised during the 2015 federal election campaign to end them within five years, at a town hall hosted by VICE Canada.
“It’ll take 150 years, or seven generations, to heal the wound of the residential schools, to become a country and truly call ourselves Canada.”
“Since forming government, we lifted 14 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, and we’re on track to have nearly half of the remaining advisories eliminated within three years,” Trudeau said in his speech to the assembly. VICE News has previously reported that those numbers are misleading, at best.
“We will lift all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities within our original five year [promise].”
Among other items, he spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, saying each needed to be implemented, but admitting much more needed to be done. And he raised the “national horror and continuing trauma” of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Bellegarde said earlier that First Nations need more information about the status of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — an initiative launched by the Trudeau government but which has been criticized lately for leaving families “in the dark”.
Bellegarde was speaking on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, or White Ribbon Day, he noted, yet there are still too many such cases.
Trudeau also highlighted First Nations education, although his excitement seemed to ring a bit hollow on the same day the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report on the sorry state of federal funding for First Nations students.
“As a teacher, I’m especially excited that this year, almost 2,000 students started the school year in six brand new schools across the country,” said Trudeau. “There are now 31 new schools under construction on reserve, another 27 are being designed, and a further 72 are in feasibility studies.”
He said Canada’s first “First Nations school board agreement” is “expected to be signed” in Manitoba, and that there were “active and ongoing discussions in other provinces” for more of these.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer report called out Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for not adequately taking into account higher costs for small schools in the North. It said there was a gap of between $300 million and $595 million for education in band-operated schools in 2012-13, for example.
The afternoon opened with a heartfelt and emotional round of applause and standing ovation for Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and who has spearheaded the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund “focused on creating new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”
Downie received a star blanket, and was named “the man who walks amongst the stars.”
Breathing heavily into the mic, Downie took a few moments before he started speaking, while the crowd waited silently.
“It’ll take 150 years, or seven generations, to heal the wound of the residential schools, to become a country and truly call ourselves Canada,” he said.