Indigenous educators optimistic, but skeptical of Trudeau's promises

Indigenous leaders in Manitoba are cautiously optimistic about the new Liberal majority government and whether the record number of newly elected indigenous members of Parliament can bring about change for First Nations.

'My faith is completely resting in the resilience of our communities,' Tasha Spillett says

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau speaks at the National Press Theatre during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, October 20, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous leaders in Manitoba are cautiously optimistic about the new Liberal majority government and whether the record number of newly elected indigenous members of Parliament can bring about change for First Nations.

"I think healthy optimism is good … but I am a little skeptical of promises," said Niigaan Sinclair, a professor and acting head of the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba.

The real fundamental issue is to break down the controlling and assimilative parts within Canada's constitution.- Niigaan Sinclair

Sinclair said his skepticism is based on a series of Liberal government-backed policies over the years that are now considered regressive. Specifically, he referenced the funding cap on First Nations education spending, the introduction of the white paper in the '60s — which would have abolished the Indian Act and put an end to Indian status for First Nations people — as well as the First Nations Governance Act, "sort of a new Indian Act that was draconian and controlling."

"I also appreciate the new dialogue that Trudeau is adopting, the nation-to-nation relationship. That's a pretty new trend amongst the Liberal party," said Sinclair, adding he doesn't think those plans will be easily executed based on how things are currently structured.

"I think the nation-to-nation relationship is virtually impossible in the current structure of the Canadian government because the way in which we are treated is as children; we're wards of the state."

8 indigenous MPs

Indigenous educator Tasha Spillett (left) and University of Manitoba professor Niigaan Sinclair (right) joined CBC host Marcy Markusa on CBC's Information Radio Wednesday morning. (CBC)
Of the 18 indigenous candidates the Liberals ran, eight won seats. Only one, Yvonne Jones from Labrador, was an incumbent.

Indigenous educator Tasha Spillett said she is optimistic about the "new indigenous faces in Ottawa," but whether those indigenous MPs were elected to represent indigenous peoples remains to be seen.

"It's important that these people do have a responsibility to their nations back at home," said Spillett. "Not only are they participating in the settler-colonial electoral system and governance, but they also have responsibilities to their nations and keeping their own government accountable to those responsibilities."

Aboriginal affairs minister

Spillet​t said she isn't sure whether an indigenous aboriginal affairs minister would make a difference for First Nations.

"The position itself would be to enforce the mandate of Indian Affairs, so I am not exactly sure how big of a difference [it will make]," she said, adding she was happy to see outgoing Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt unseated. 

"I know that's definitely not a job that I personally would want to do. I think it would put that person in a kind of precarious relationship with indigenous peoples."​

Sinclair shares Spillett's trepidation.

"It wouldn't make a difference.… The real fundamental issue is to break down the controlling and assimilative parts within Canada's Constitution," he said, adding an indigenous minister of Indian Affairs would face an uphill battle.

"Maybe that person could manoeuvre their party in such a way that they'd be able to have such a dialogue; however, I see such monumental obstacles in the way."

'Awoke a sleeping giant'

Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Monday that outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper "awoke a sleeping giant" in First Nations people this election, adding "a Liberal majority government is going to have to deal with the giant in indigenous people of these lands."

Sinclair said indigenous people involved in grassroots movements such as Idle No More are particularly engaged in the political process right now and need to be likewise engaged by the Liberal government.

"They are the new voices that Grand Chief Nepinak is talking about," he said.​

Spillett said she thinks whatever happens in Ottawa going forward, indigenous people are already working within their communities across Canada to improve life for First Nations.

"We've had an outcry for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, but families have already been doing this work for a very long time without the intervention of systems," Spillett said.

"Going forward, my faith is completely resting in the resilience of our communities ensuring that no matter what government we work with, with that we are going to move forward for the well-being of our communities."

Sinclair remains "nervous" but he's encouraged by Trudeau's first days.

"One day in office and Trudeau's already announcing, 'I'll move speedily into the murdered and missing indigenous women national inquiry,'" he said.


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