Trudeau slips a challenge to Indigenous leaders

In his UN speech, the PM spoke mostly about what Ottawa’s doing, but he also called for Indigenous groups to rethink how they’re organized

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada speaks during the 72nd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 21,2017. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during the 72nd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 21,2017. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

The most intriguing part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech on Indigenous issues to the United Nations General Assembly today wasn’t what he had to say about his own government’s approach, but his call for First Nations to reorganize themselves for a new era.

The way Trudeau framed the grim status quo was entirely familiar, but it never hurts to be reminded. “There are today children living on reserve in Canada who cannot safely drink, or bathe in, or even play in the water that comes out of their taps,” he said. “There are Indigenous parents who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away, or take their own lives in the night. 
Young Indigenous people in Canada struggle to get a good education.”

Nor was there anything surprising in the way he cast his government’s approach to making things better. He boasted of “dismantling the old colonial bureaucratic structures,” a reference mainly to his move, taken at the time of his recent cabinet shuffle, to split the Indigenous Affairs department in two, with one part responsible for the esoteric work of building up Indigenous “political, cultural, legal and economic institutions,” while the other—a new Department of Indigenous Services, headed by Jane Philpott, the former health minister—takes on the practical work of improving services like housing, education and water.

READ MORE: Moving from talk to action on Indigenous affairs

But then Trudeau touched—briefly but tellingly—on the other half of the relationship. If Ottawa is busy overhauling its institutions, what about First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities? “For Indigenous Peoples, it means taking a hard look at how they define and govern themselves as nations and governments, and how they seek to relate to other orders of government,” Trudeau said.

And he continued in that vein in a way that left no doubt that he doesn’t see the current array of Indigenous governments and organizations as sufficient to forging a better working relationship with Ottawa. “Indigenous peoples will decide how they wish to represent and organize themselves,” he said. “Some may choose to engage with our government based on historic nations and treaties, others will use different shared experiences as the basis for coming together. 
The choice is theirs.”

Uncertainty at the federal level about how best to interact with the range of possible partners among Indigenous groups is a longstanding source of frustration and even confusion. Back in early 2014, Shawn Atleo, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), negotiated what appeared to be a landmark deal with then-prime minister Stephen Harper on First Nations education. But major factions in the AFN rejected Atleo’s policy, which lead to his resignation and the collapse of the education agreement.

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If the AFN’s ability to represent hundreds of First Nations across the country at the national level is politically uncertain, the capacity of small First Nations to independently take on daunting new responsibilities at the local level is also often in doubt. This came up last June, when Trudeau was asked by reporters why his government wasn’t promptly turning over new funds to individual First Nations to improve child welfare services.

“In the history of the Canadian relationship, it’s been very rare that you had a government say to Indigenous communities, ‘What do you need?’ ” he told reporters. “‘We have money there, we’re ready to invest in you, you just need to tell us how you need it spent, where you’re going to spend it, and how you can best help.’ Well, a lot of Indigenous communities haven’t had the opportunity yet to take that responsibility, to actually think about how they can and must deliver [social services].”

Trudeau’s comments to the UN today about what he clearly sees as a pressing need for First Nations to rethink how they “represent and organize themselves” signals the importance he puts on parallel institutional reforms—not just how Ottawa approaches Indigenous people, but how Indigenous people approach Ottawa.


Trudeau slips a challenge to Indigenous leaders

  1. Who is this white man? His ignorance if appalling. He’s as back as Gilmore.

    The AFN is a lobby group. That is Indigenous studies 101 Day 1. They do not represent anyone except the chiefs and councils elected under the Indian Act. A system that was imposed at gunpoint by Canada in a move of colonial violence.

    We have our original governance systems. We are busy getting them oiled up and cleaned of colonial debris. Trudeau wants life easy. He’s not going to get it that way.

    • KIM WEAVER, Well Kim start by providing a satisfactory future for your children. Next, spend all the money the government gives you to better the quality of life and stop sitting around the campfire blaming everyone else.

    • Or, according to them, they represent everyone “The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is a national advocacy organization representing First Nation citizens in Canada, which includes more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities and in cities and towns across the country.”. No doubt they seem to have a somewhat biased structure where the executive council, comprised of regional chiefs, is heavy with older men and only one women. This hierarchical structure is only one possible form of representation although a generally common one. Like all bodies that propose to be representative, they can’t possibly represent all views equally any more than my local MP represents my opinions with any accuracy. Note, they call themselves an advocacy group possibly trying to avoid the stigma of being a political organization – something that this article overlooks but equally an aspiration rather than a practical reality. Certainly education is a salient issue which has to surmount several basic obstacles to achieve equality: first that education in Canada otherwise is a provincial responsibility with provincial ministries having massive economies of scale and with individual schools supported by regional boards also having substantial scale and resources. One cannot discount the advantages of dedicated infrastructure and personnel nor the inertia of seniority and personal development opportunities as well as progressive pay schemes that promote retention. The TDSB alone has a primary student population equal to the entirety of Canadian aboriginal children of primary age. Not only are the differences in funding striking but differences in opportunity and level of support for students and teachers are equally striking. Perpetuating the historical tradition of a scattered system with no middle layers of provincial/territorial and regional infrastructure with minimal coupling between local conditions and administration is a mistake – one that the national viewpoint of the AFN might have difficulty dealing with. On the other hand, provincial governments early on took the opportunity of avoiding responsibility for native residents while retaining control of the land base: if a change is going to come it needs movement at the provincial level – perhaps more than at the federal level.

  2. I would like to see the total amounts of money turned over to the indigenous councils by Canada in the last 75 years. Then a complete accounting where that money went.
    Next, a list of opportunities available to the indigenous children and how many take advantage of them then how many utilize these skills.
    The people who call themselves first nations really need to look to their future generations to solve these problems.

  3. I firmly believe that our government and the indigenous leaders are ruining the future for all First Nations Children and that is a crying shame. Lets assume we fix all of the water, education, health and housing problems in all reserves, then what? Does anyone really believe the younger generation will be satisfied living in these remote communities? There is absolutely NO future in reservations and people who think there is certainly does not have the best interests of the aboriginal youth at heart. For heavens sake DO AWAY WITH RESERVATIONS.

  4. This was one of the most mature intelligent discussions of a Trudeau policy or speech I’ve seen. Geddes appears to have been able to pivot away from the usual Ottawa view of Trudeau from Cons propaganda two years ago. It is time to ditch the selfie, drama teacher, nice hair slurs, cuts about celebrity and magazine covers.
    On this speech, the herd jerk reaction was about what he could have said but didn’t say, what was left out. Those items were repeated endlessly by others, there was nothing new or interesting to be said. That would have been the safe predictable wat to go.
    Trudeau sent fresh new messages all over the place in his speech. Don’t be discouraged Canada keep working. To the world, Canada has a problem and we are working on it as sincerely as we can but there are immense problems and we’re not proud of the record. This speech goes out to nations with aboriginal populations as an inspiration to both governments and indigenoue peoples around the world. And there is a message to Canadian indigenous leaders as Geddes notes.
    Trudeau made an important world speech in Europe on income inequality. This is another of similar importance. Ignored or ridiculed at home, Trudeau is establishing himself as a world leader of importance. These speeches are taken seriously.