Trudeau's 'canoes and paddles' remark called borderline racist by First Nations MP

A First Nations NDP MP has written a satirical letter to Justin Trudeau to thank him for his recent comments about Indigenous youth, while taking aim at the prime minister's suggestion that some chiefs are out of touch with the needs of young people living on reserve.

Prime minister's suggestion that some chiefs are out of touch leads to a sarcastic response

NDP MP Romeo Saganash says Trudeau's remarks about young First Nations people needing places to store their canoes and paddles are 'ignorant, insensitive and insulting.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A First Nations NDP MP has written a biting, satirical letter to Justin Trudeau to "thank" him for controversial remarks he made about Indigenous youth, while taking aim at the prime minister's suggestion that some chiefs are out of touch with the needs of young people living on reserve.

Trudeau had suggested that most of the Indigenous youth he talked to wanted "a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land."

Romeo Saganash, who represents the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou, and serves as his party's Indigenous affairs critic, told Trudeau he had no idea there was such a problem until he watched the prime minister's town hall appearance in Saskatoon. (Trudeau repeated the canoes and paddle comments, nearly verbatim, the next day in Winnipeg.)

"In fact, I am ashamed for my people that we haven't been listening to our youth in the way that you have," Saganash wrote in his sarcastic response.

Saganash said he was writing to the prime minister to voice his support for what he imagines is a national canoe and paddle program, something he said must have been erroneously left off the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. It must have been a "secret" recommendation that only Trudeau knew about, Saganash wrote.

"It is time for the federal government to help First Nations maintain our very important spiritual connection with the water," he wrote.

Sarcastically, the Cree MP wrote that Trudeau is best placed to take the lead on this file because of his track record of protecting water sources, pointing to his approval of the Site C hydroelectric dam, Trans Mountain's Kinder Morgan pipeline and the Muskrat Falls dam.

Tribal Chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council Felix Thomas directs a question to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Saskatoon on Jan. 25. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Saganash wrote that once the canoe and paddle storage program is in place, he will personally paddle across the country to tell First Nations concerned about these projects not to worry, as the "urgently needed" investment in canoe depots will help Indigenous people protect their land and water.

The Trudeau remarks in question were made after Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas criticized the disconnect between the prime minister's rhetoric — namely his assertion that there is no relationship more important to him than the one with Indigenous people — and the government's perceived inaction on key files, including post-secondary and K-12 education, child welfare, water and health care.

"I've spoken with a number of chiefs who said, 'You know, we need a youth centre … You know, we need TVs and lounges and sofas so they can hang around.' And when a chief says that to me, I pretty much know they haven't actually talked to their young people," Trudeau said.

"Because most of the young people I've talked to want a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land."

'Insensitive and insulting'

The comments have been labelled as patronizing by many First Nations observers. Saganash said Friday the comments are "bordering on racist."

"I couldn't let the prime minister off the hook with those comments that he made," he said later in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics.

He said his letter's sarcastic approach is a typical Cree response to irritants. "The remarks were ignorant, insensitive and insulting," he said, saying he was particularly bothered by the fact the prime minister repeated them at two separate town hall appearances.

"He should be aware that the challenges that we have in this country as Indigenous Peoples are way more serious, and way more grave, than having sheds for our canoes and paddles," he said. "Stop this rhetoric."

Saganash said he founded the Cree National Youth Council in 1985, and has been travelling to communities countrywide as part of his duties as a member of the Indigenous affairs parliamentary committee, and not once has he heard a request for a canoe depot.

What youth really need, Saganash said, is mental health supports, adequate housing, decent education and reforms to the child welfare system.

The Prime Minister's Office said late Friday Trudeau's comments were simply reflective of the many conversations he has had over the years with Indigenous leaders, young people, parents and elders.

"During these conversations, First Nations youth often raise the need for greater investments in youth programming and services, and we will continue listening to youth in Indigenous communities across the country while working in partnership with them to develop new solutions and opportunities," said Cameron Ahmad, the prime minister's press secretary, in a statement.