What did Justin Trudeau say about Canada's history of colonialism?

Did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say that Canada has no history of colonialism? Yes and no. Literally.

PM's comments about colonialism raise ire online - but what did he actually say?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smiles as he is asked a question during a question and answer session with students at New York University in New York. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say that Canada has no history of colonialism? Yes and no. 


In an article on the National Observer website about Trudeau's visit to New York University in New York City on Thursday, he was quoted talking about Canada's ability to offer support for UN peacekeeping missions "without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have — either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism."

The quote raised a lot of eyebrows online — especially among Indigenous peoples — who took to social media to express their outrage.

However, during that same Q&A session with NYU students, Trudeau also spoke critically of Canada's relationship with Indigenous people — and specifically mentioned "colonial behaviours" — in comments that were not in the National Observer article.

"We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples," Trudeau said, in answering a question from a student.

MP raises comment in House

NDP MP Niki Ashton raised Trudeau's first comment in question period in the House of Commons on Friday.

"The prime minister yesterday in New York told a group of American students that Canada doesn't have the 'baggage' of colonialism.

"Maybe that explains why, six days after taking office, this government signed a deal to let the Catholic Church off the hook in terms of their financial obligations to residential school survivors," Ashton said.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett seemed to be about to address the PM's comments, but ran out of time after first addressing Ashton's reference to the federal government's agreement with the Catholic Church. Bennett said that agreement was signed on Oct. 30, five days before the Liberals took office, and said the church has a moral obligation to "pay the money that it promised to pay."

Cameron Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office, told CBC News on Friday that Trudeau's comments referred to Canada's history outside its borders, and was in reference to diplomacy and Canada's role as a peacekeeping nation.

"He was talking about two different things," Ahmad said, adding that the Liberals have committed to implementing the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to building a "nation-to-nation" relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In 2009, then-prime minister Stephen Harper also sparked controversy with comments about this country's history, saying that "Canada has no history of colonialism" while he was speaking at the G20.