Despite economic turmoil Trudeau must keep promises to Indigenous people

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The Justin Trudeau government has set an entirely new tone in relations with Canada's Indigenous people.

One gets the strong impression that the Indigenous file is one the prime minister really cares about.

The Harper government's approach ranged from passive aggressive to just aggressive to openly hostile, despite a brief glow after the official apology for residential schools.

Justin Trudeau's father, who served as prime minister from 1968 to 1984 (with a nine-month intermission), was at best uncomfortable in his dealings with Canada's first peoples.

Early in his tenure, Pierre Trudeau commissioned a White Paper from his Indian Affairs Minister, a young up-and-comer by the name of Jean Chrétien, which recommended abolishing both the Indian Act and constitutionally recognized Indian status.

It also recommended abolishing treaties, privatizing Indian reserve lands, and transferring responsibility for education and other services to Indian reserves to the provinces.

Pierre Trudeau had it right when he characterized the Indian Act as archaic, racist legislation, which condemns Indigenous people to second-class status.

He had it wrong, though, when he seemed to believe he could simply snap his fingers and declare that "Indians" were now unhyphenated Canadians, just like rest of us.

Trudeau-père tried to ignore both treaty and Aboriginal rights, which a series of subsequent court decisions, from Calder in the 1970s to Delgamuukw in 1990s, upheld.

When the time came to repatriate and amend the Canadian constitution, Pierre Trudeau had to be pressured into including even a token recognition of Indigenous rights.

His original intent was to deal only with the provinces, and his only concerns when it came to rights were so-called universal civil rights and specific English and French language rights.

Canada's first peoples were not even on Pierre Trudeau's radar.

They only received a measure of recognition -- the now famous Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- by appealing not only to the courts, but also to the Crown in London.

Toward the end of his time in office the first Prime Minister Trudeau seemed to have had something of a conversion.

He put MP Keith Penner in charge of coming up with a report on Indigenous self-government, and the Liberal government supported a significant delegation of powers for First Nations at the constitutional conferences on self-government that followed the Constitution Act of 1981.

The provinces, or at least a majority of them, blocked any progress on that.

Federal government has failed in its obligations to First Nations

Since the 1980s, the situation of Indigenous communities vis-à-vis the Canadian majority has only seemed to grow worse.

Not only did efforts to achieve change through the constitution fail miserably, the federal government has also, to all appearances, stumbled badly in its responsibility to provide basic services to First Nations.

This writer has reported extensively on the many dimensions of that failure since taking on this reporting job at in the fall of 2011.

Here at we have had a number of stories on the Auditor General's (AG) numerous scathing indictments of the way the federal government fails to provide basic services to Indigenous communities.

In 2011, former AG Sheila Fraser devoted her final report to the absurd annually renewably funding arrangements for First Nations education and other services. Under those arrangements the federal government expects often very small and isolated First Nations to manage schools, housing and infrastructure programs without adequate or predictable funding.

Instead of meaningful control or financial accountability, the federal government imposes petty, frivolous and costly reporting requirements on First Nations.

Poor and isolated communities are forced to hire expensive outside consultants just to keep up with unproductive and voluminous paperwork demands.

When she was AG Fraser documented that on numerous occasions.

Senior federal officials fully accepted the accuracy of her critique back in 2011. They told parliamentarians the only way out would be a new statutory means of properly funding and managing such services as education for First Nations.

Nearly five years later nothing has happened on that front.

The last time the AG's office reported on Indigenous matters was in the spring of 2015, when it raked the federal Department of Health over the coals for failing to provide adequate medical transport to remote First Nations. In addition, the AG said the federal Department of Health has not assured that its nurses are properly trained and nursing stations adequately equipped.

Feeble and halting attempt to achieve education reform went nowhere

It is a story that seems to repeat itself without end.

The Harper government claimed it wanted to put an emphasis on education.

It talked a lot about using education and training to better connect the new generation of Indigenous people to the burgeoning resource-based economy.

Together with the Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa set up a special panel to make recommendations on reforming First Nations education.

The panel issued its report in 2012. It placed heavy emphasis on the need to respect Indigenous culture and traditions while providing comprehensive educational opportunities to First Nations communities.

The two are not antithetical. They are, in fact, complementary, the report said. Successful education starts with the lived experience of the young people being educated -- and that of their communities.

On governance, the special panel report recommended the creation of a new National Commission for First Nation Education, which would be controlled jointly by the First Nations and the federal government.

That recommendation, which would have resulted in something resembling a national Indigenous Ministry of Education, annoyed some First Nations bands and their chiefs, who saw it as a threat to their treaty rights and what they considered to be their constitutional authority.

The Harper government wasn't crazy about the idea either, for the opposite reason that it would give too much power to Indigenous people collectively.

When the government finally got around to proposing a First Nations Education Act, two years later, the Commission idea was gone, as were many of the other proposals focused on respecting First Nations' cultures and inherent authority over the education of their children.

Prime Minister Harper then doubled down and made any increase in funding for First Nations education conditional on acceptance of his government's proposed reforms.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo was so desperate to get more resources into schools and classrooms on reserves that he reluctantly went along, knowing the Harper government had scant interest in Indigenous people and their plight.

The First Nations themselves revolted, however, and Atleo was forced to resign.

In the end, there was no new Act and no new money.

One per cent of population; one third of a per cent of GDP

The Trudeau government has inherited all this and much more.

In the short term the new team in Ottawa will be under pressure to focus on what most observers are calling Canada's faltering economy.

Canada may not be in a recession now, but knowledgeable folk are clucking that we are definitely in something of a slump.

Even if the next election is four years away, and the Liberals are still basking in a post-election honeymoon glow, they know they will pay a big political price if they fail to act quickly and decisively on the economy.

But whatever the current state of the general economy, Canada's First Nations have been in a state of permanent and dire economic crisis for decades.

On-reserve Indigenous people account for about one per cent of all Canadians, but they can only claim, at most, a tiny fraction of one per cent -- less than a third -- of Canada's total annual economic output, its gross domestic product (GDP).

And so we can assume that when tough times hit mainstream Canadians' stock portfolios, already beleaguered First Nations communities find themselves in an even deeper economic ditch.

Canada's first peoples, who put such faith in Justin Trudeau at the ballot box last October, have to hope the prime minister remembers that grim fact when he puts together his agenda for the coming parliamentary session. 


Photo: flickr/renegade98

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