Trudeau breaking promises to Canada’s First Nations

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It’s been a year since Justin Trudeau and his Liberals swept to power, winning a majority government with their “Real Change” campaign and promising to establish a true “nation-to-nation relationship” with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. While the Liberals have honoured a few of their promises, recent events have First Nations communities and leaders scratching their heads over the true agenda of the Trudeau government on the environment, the well-being of First Nations children and Indigenous relations as a whole.

The Liberal commitments toward First Nations communities couldn’t have been clearer.

At the 2015 Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Assembly in Montreal, Trudeau declared that if he was elected he would ensure the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), a declaration that asserts Indigenous rights in self-governance and determination.

“We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution,” said Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett in May 2016, addressing the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City following the Liberal victory.


Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett

A month later, however, Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould suddenly announced that adopting UNDRIP into Canadian law was “unworkable”. She even went so far as to label it a “political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to implement it back home in communities.”

While Canada’s objector status to UNDRIP has been removed, the Liberal government completed its first about face when they refused to hold themselves to the UNDRIP standard in their dealings with First Nations.

This trend has continued.

In August, Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued construction permits for the Site C Dam on the Peace River in British Columbia, an $8.8 billion project opposed by environmental activists and the nearby Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations.

As Prophet River and West Moberly leaders were in court fighting for their treaty rights, Trudeau was simultaneously green lighting the project. The two communities will see thousands of acres of their territory flooded by the dam should construction go ahead as planned.

Responding to the approval of Site C in the Toronto Star, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde was categorical. “Proceeding with this project without proper consultation and the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations is neither consistent with Canada’s own constitution nor Canada’s human rights obligations under the declaration and elsewhere,” he said.

The unexpected Liberal flip-flops on the environment echo the policies of the decade-long Conservative government of Stephen Harper, especially where fossil fuel development is concerned.  

When Trudeau approved the Pacific Northwest LNG project, a liquefied natural gas terminal and export facility planned for BC’s Lelu Island at Prince Rupert in late September, Haida Nation leaders were outraged. Worth $36 billion, the Northwest LNG project poses a threat to Treaty 8 hunting, trapping and fishing rights and endangers the Skeena salmon run, the second largest in the country.

While Trudeau sports a Haida raven tattoo on his shoulder that had the support of community leaders in his early days at the helm of the Liberal Party, his actions with the Site C dam and the Northwest LNG terminal have drastically changed their opinion.

“In accepting a tattoo you commit to the values and laws that govern our nation,” said Haida artist Robert Davidson, the man responsible for the design appropriated by Trudeau. “Maybe Trudeau really needs to understand what that tattoo signifies to the Haida. In one breath we’re all excited…then all of a sudden, how do we react to what he’s doing, to the decisions he’s making?”


The most recent decision made by Ottawa was to approve the $1.3 billion expansion of a western natural gas pipeline aimed to boost the faltering Alberta oil industry. Many observers believe the Liberal government is preparing to approve the highly controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline (which would transport Alberta bitumen to a Vancouver port) as well as Energy East, which would do the same across six provinces to a New Brunswick facility.

During the last year’s election campaign, Trudeau dominated social media with his good looks and sunny personality. While it’s hard to fault someone for not being able to accomplish everything they promised in their first year in office, it’s hard to accept that in many cases the Liberal government has gone and done the opposite of what they committed to do. On the plus side, we do finally have a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Thanks to the trusty Trudeau metre we have a clear picture of the 18 major promises made to Indigenous peoples: 3 promises delivered, 5 promises in progress, 6 promises not yet started and 4 promises broken. Unfortunately it’s the broken promises that are the most telling: no UNDRIP, no $50 million for the post-secondary student support program and the 2% funding cap on First Nations programs still in place.

By choosing to allocate $2.6 billion to First Nations education for Kindergarten to Grade 12 over five fiscal years, the Liberal government’s financial commitments to provide Native children the same education opportunities as the rest of Canada is little more than what was offered by the Conservatives.

NDP MP and Indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus believes the Trudeau government is ignoring the human rights of First Nations people.

“I’m really shocked,” he said. “I expected that we would see serious movement, serious action. The first promise that [the Liberals] made in the election was $2.6 billion in funding to First Nations children. And then they’ve walked away from that promise – they’re stretching it out over five years. It’s the same amount that Harper had promised.”


The NDP introduced a motion demanding the Liberals come into compliance with a human rights tribunal ruling issued last January, calling on the government to immediately boost the budget for First Nations child welfare by $155 million. The original ruling stated the federal government has consistently failed to provide services to First Nations children comparable to those offered by the provincial system and the tribunal has already issued the Liberals two compliance orders since.

“Saying there doesn’t need to be any compliance with the human rights tribunal, I really don’t know what’s driving their agenda,” said Angus. “They seem to think that if they have a consultation and put a survey online they’re doing their job. It’s a huge red flag in terms of this government walking away from that promise they made to establish a new nation-to-nation relationship.”

Angus didn’t expect wholesale change overnight. “But there are a few incidents that stand out as being very cynical,” he said. “We have the justice minister in court right now fighting a compensation case that was awarded to a residential school survivor of a childhood rape at Spanish residential. That sends this real clear signal that they’re following the same attitude that the previous government had – that they will fight Indigenous rights in court, tooth and nail.”

Angus, like many others, says the image Trudeau projected during the election campaign and the reality of his government’s policies one year into power do not match up.

“They only want a nation-to-nation relationship when it’s convenient to them,” Angus concluded.

The office of Prime Minister Trudeau did not respond to numerous requests for comment on these issues.

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