OTTAWA – Ottawa must follow two separate tracks in its reconciliation efforts with indigenous people, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: taking broader, long-term steps to rebuild the relationship, while also addressing urgent short-term needs.
Trudeau was addressing the former track at a news conference Thursday when the latter one tragically intervened: a house fire on a southern Ontario First Nation that killed five members of the same family: a father, three young children and a baby.
“Obviously, our thoughts and hearts go out to families affected by this most recent incident,” said Trudeau, flanked by the indigenous leaders with whom he’d spent the morning meeting.
“We’ve taken significant measures, concretely, to build solutions and partnerships with indigenous communities, but we know that it is not just about immediate Band-Aids and immediate quick fixes.”
The relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada has to be “renewed and rebuilt,” Trudeau continued — a process that is not going to be complete any time soon.
“The challenges we are facing will take not just years, but decades in many cases to fully reverse, fully establish the right kind of relationship moving forward.”
Trudeau’s remarks came well before officials on the Oneida Nation of the Thames, located 25 kilometres southwest of London, Ont., confirmed that five people died in the blaze, which began Wednesday night.
“First Nations housing is in a crisis,” said Oneida Chief Randall Phillips, who described the house as “just basically kindling.”
“We will continue to point to the federal government and provincial government to make sure that they uphold their responsibility to make sure that we have safe homes here. But this is a perfect example of us not being able to refurbish or fix houses that are in need of repair.”
In a statement, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said she was deeply saddened to learn of the tragedy, adding the government is “steadfast in our commitment to work with First Nations to ensure the safety of their communities.”
Trudeau pointed out $8.4 billion that was set aside in the March budget to address “urgent needs,” including lifting boil-water advisories across the country, “with more to come in the coming months and years.”
But his main purpose Thursday was to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by putting down a marker on the government’s effort to reset its relationship with indigenous peoples.
He said cabinet ministers would meet at least twice a year with First Nation, Metis and Inuit leaders to tackle shared priorities, while the government sets up an interim board of directors as a precursor to a National Council for Reconciliation.
The government is also providing $10 million to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
The TRC, led by Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first indigenous judge, issued 94 sweeping recommendations after a six-year examination of the impact of Canada’s residential school system, part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Sinclair, now an independent senator, cheered Thursday’s announcements but said calls for both a royal proclamation on reconciliation and a national action plan are still awaiting a response.
The commission also wants to see an end to Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which permits corporal punishment, and sustainable funding for healing to address the long-term and intergenerational impacts of residential schools.
“So long as they remain unaddressed, other efforts toward changing the understanding of each other and mutual respect will remain elusive,” Sinclair said during a speech in the Senate.
Trudeau should be commended for the prompt announcement of the inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women, Sinclair noted. Hearings are expected to begin next spring.