'We are all impatient': Trudeau promises First Nations leaders fundamental change

Amid much talk of the next federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday promised First Nations chiefs further reform to the often fractious relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous people that will be difficult for his political successors to reverse.

PM says Liberal government has enacted major changes that will be difficult for others to undo

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on after receiving an Assembly of First Nations jacket as a gift from AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, left, after his speech at the AFN's Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que. Trudeau said he understands First Nations leaders' sense of urgency to address some pressing social issues. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Amid much talk of the next federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday promised First Nations chiefs further reforms to the often fractious relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous people — reforms he said his political successors will find it hard to reverse.

At a special meeting of chiefs outside Ottawa organized by the Assembly of First Nations to discuss federal legislation, Trudeau said that he understands First Nations leaders' sense of an urgent need to address some pressing social issues — especially the sorry state of the country's child welfare system — but he said the Liberal government also has its eye on the long term.

"I get the underlying impatience about this issue," Trudeau said. "We are all impatient to move forward in concrete, tangible, real ways that turn the page decisively and comprehensively."

Praising his own government's promise to begin decolonizing Canada's laws, adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and move to make it easier for First Nations to pursue self-governance, Trudeau said the government is focusing on reforms that will empower Indigenous people and end a cycle of dependence on other levels of government.

Citing his father's own time as prime minister, Trudeau said he saw Pierre Trudeau toil away on some issues that are now simply "footnotes of history" 30 years on.

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"A lot of things just don't last ... and I know my focus as a leader is very much trying to maximize my energy, my focus and the limited resources on things that are going to make a meaningful difference not just now, but for generations to come."

The prime minister said that, since the last election, the Liberal government has enacted major changes that will be difficult for others to undo, citing the creation of yearly Crown-Indigenous policy tables, splitting the Indigenous Affairs Department to provide a renewed focus on signing modern-day treaties and rolling out billions in new funding to close fiscal gaps.

"No one is going to be able to back up on this path forward that we're taking. That is the true legacy of this 2½-year relationship," Trudeau said. "There are things that will never be able to be undone, and that is a good thing."

The chief leading negotiations with the federal government on Indigenous languages legislation — which proponents hope will protect the extinction of some mother tongues — asked Trudeau if he could promise the bill would be enacted before the end of the Liberals' first mandate.

"I recognize your faith in my ability to get re-elected," Trudeau quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. He assured chiefs it's a priority for his government, but he wants to work on the legislation with Indigenous leaders.

"Ottawa won't tell you guys how to protect your languages," he said. "We're going to take the time you feel is necessary to get this right."

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In December 2016, Trudeau promised to enact an Indigenous languages act, "co-developed with Indigenous peoples, with the goal of ensuring the preservation, protection, and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages."

'Get on with it'

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is running for re-election, said progress has been made under the current government. He pointed to the launch of the MMIWG inquiry, lifting the two per cent spending cap on First Nations spending, investments in education and a commitment to overhaul Canadian laws and policies that aren't in line with UNDRIP.

Bellegarde pitched this progress — and his productive working relationship with the federal government — as reason enough to give him a new mandate as national chief. He has faced accusations from some Indigenous leaders that he is too cosy with the Liberal government — something he addressed in his remarks to the chiefs.

"We need to have access to leadership. We need to have access to the prime minister, to the ministers, for you, the chiefs. We're just trying to be helpful worker bees to make these things more useful for you all. We're doing our best in that way," Bellegarde said. "Nothing is ever perfect."

Sheila North, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents reserves in northern Manitoba, threw her hat in the ring to take on Bellegarde for the national title Wednesday.

In an interview with CBC News after her announcement, she said that under Bellegarde's leadership the AFN has "become an arm of the government" and does not push back strongly enough against Liberal inaction on some important files.

She said many First Nations chiefs are eager to assume jurisdiction over and responsibility for their own affairs, and the pace of change is simply too slow under Bellegarde.

"The prime minister can hand over jurisdiction and the resources that rightfully belong to Indigenous peoples tomorrow if he wanted to, and work with our nations to let us run our own affairs and let us run our own communities because we know what the needs are, and we know where the resources need to go. If he was truly serious about that it would have happened already," North said.

"He needs to get on with it right now."

The next federal election is Oct. 21, 2019.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.