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Why local Indigenous leaders literally stood to hold Canada's PM accountable

Every time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was faced with a question related to Indigenous issues on Thursday night’s town hall, Oneida Nation of the Thames Chief Randall Phillips stood before him in silence.

Indigenous issues centre stage town hall attended by 2,300 people and several loud hecklers

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Chief Myeengun Henry, left, Justin Trudeau, middle and Oneida Nation of the Thames Chief Randall Phillips, right at a London, Ont. town hall on Thursday. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Every time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was faced with a question related to Indigenous issues at Thursday's town hall, Oneida Nation of the Thames Chief Randall Phillips stood before him in silence.

"I wanted to be a visible reminder to that prime minister that he has to be careful with his [answers]. Our people are watching and they know everything is not perfect," said Phillips, who stood up four times throughout the event.

Trudeau received some 14 questions — and backlash from two hecklers — at Western University on Thursday.

Several people questioned Trudeau about the human rights of Indigenous peoples. They focused on issues related to the underfunding in health care and education, inaccessibility to clean water and lack of employment in Indigenous communities.  

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Chief Myeengun Henry made opening remarks at the PM town hall in London. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

"Each one of these questions impacts our First Nations communities," said Phillips, who also commended Trudeau for his efforts toward reconciliation. "I wanted [him] to remember that [he's] speaking about us and to keep that in mind,[he] doesn't speak over us."

It was representation from local Indigenous communities that took centre stage. Unlike last year's town hall, opening and closing remarks were led by Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Chief Myeengun Henry — who gifted Trudeau with an eagle feather.

"There's no other higher act of honour to give somebody. What this signifies is that we will work together," said Henry, who stood alongside Phillips as he addressed Trudeau in the town hall's final minutes. "I'm offering these gifts because [Trudeau] needs to learn and then he can answer those questions a lot more adequately."

Trudeau acknowledged a long path to reconciliation that would prioritize the needs of Indigenous communities. "No relationship is as important as the one we are building with the one with Indigenous peoples across this country," he said.

2,300 people and several hecklers

Heckler interrupts a town hall hosted by Justin Trudeau at Western University on Thursday. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A crowd of about 2,300 people filled Alumni Hall. Trudeau's third town hall of his cross-country tour was met with repeated interruptions from two hecklers, one who stormed out, and another who was forcibly removed by police.

Ironically, following a question about how Trudeau deals with his "haters," one woman interrupted him citing her disapproval of a motion in the House of Commons that condemned Islamophobia.

Another man interrupted the crowd twice, shouting about government applications that weren't accepted, preventing him from "seeing his son." He eventually threw papers from a levelled seating area onto the floor, metres from Trudeau.

He was removed from the venue by police.

Among the observers were most of Canada's cabinet ministers, who drew crowds of people and students eager to talk to them and take photos. They remain in London on Friday to join a two-day retreat.

Women's issues

Minister of Science Kristy Dundas talking to town hall goers. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A local pub's promotion that offers women a 13 per cent discount has recently put the gender wage gap under the microscope, an issue that was also raised with the prime minister.

One woman asked about Canadian initiatives that are meant to promote women in traditionally male-dominated careers.

Another woman added a personal twist, asking Trudeau what advice he would give his 8-year-old daughter who could grow up to face gender barriers, one questioner said.

"Equality is one of those things that is of fundamental importance to me and should be important to everyone. I'm a feminist and everyone in this room should be too," responded Trudeau.

"I will [also] teach [my sons] to be feminists, teach them that their sister should and could do anything and should be paid just as much as men are for the same work."

Trudeau wrapped up his town hall by accepting an eagle feather and thanking the audience, despite several interruptions.

His next town hall will be in Quebec City on Jan. 18.