The reconciliation project is vulnerable to cynicism — and Trudeau's Tofino trip didn't help

Justin Trudeau's visit to the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation in British Columbia on Monday was a moment of reckoning — over the prime minister's latest vacation-related scandal and over his entire record on reconciliation.

Polling shows the number of Canadians who see Ottawa as an obstacle to progress is growing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is framed by a eagle statue as he visits Tk’emlups the Sewepemc in Kamloops, B.C. Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's visit to the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation in British Columbia on Monday was a moment of reckoning — over the prime minister's latest vacation-related scandal and over his entire record on reconciliation.

That trip to Tofino was further evidence that Trudeau has, at the very least, poor risk perception. Most politicians have or acquire a keen awareness of anything that could get them into trouble. They learn to examine their actions in terms of whether something is likely to make them look bad.

Trudeau probably isn't completely oblivious to risk. But he is far less cautious than, say, Stephen Harper.

Maybe Trudeau assumed that since he was going to spend part of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation speaking with survivors of residential schools, and had attended an official ceremony the night before, it wouldn't matter if he also departed that day for a short post-election vacation with his wife and children.

If so, he assumed wrong. But most politicians in his position probably wouldn't even have taken the chance.

The result, as Chantal Hebert wrote earlier this month, was a gift to the prime minister's critics — fresh fodder for those who insist Trudeau lacks either conviction or substance, or both.

WATCH: Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir calls for progress after Trudeau's apology

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir calls for 'positive steps' after meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau

2 years ago
Duration 4:07
Chief Rosanne Casimir accepted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology for missing the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and says the community is willing to work towards a better future with the federal government.

The other price Trudeau paid for that trip was having to sit beside Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir on Monday as she explained — twice — how Trudeau's decision to pass on the community's invitation to travel there had caused "shock, anger, and sorrow and disbelief" in her community.

But this was about more than Tofino.

"I just want to state to the prime minister that, once again, we as Indigenous peoples ... acknowledge and are respectful of the commitments that we heard here today," said Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. "But I think we're beyond theatrics, platitudes and words. And as stated by many Indigenous peoples in this country, we need to see action."

'Were they just words?'

Teegee pointed to funding for new healing centres as an example. He also referred to Trudeau's latest election victory as his "third chance."

Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of the Splatsin First Nation, seated to Trudeau's right, recalled "this young man" saying in 2015 that Canada's most important relationship was with Indigenous peoples.

"It gave me hope. It gave many of our people hope," Christian said. "But were they just words?"

When it was Trudeau's turn to speak, he began with prepared remarks. But after a few minutes, he stopped looking down at whatever was laid out in front of him. What he said then was, by turns, thoughtful, conciliatory, introspective, defensive and insistent.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions in Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation

'I think these past months have been an awakening for many Canadians': Trudeau discusses the aftermath of the reported discovery of 200 unmarked burial sites at Kamloops Indian Residential School

2 years ago
Duration 3:36
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells a crowd in Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation that the federal government and all Canadians have a lot of work to do on reconciliation.

"I think we all thought that the contrast — from a government that over the previous ten years had cancelled the Kelowna Accords, ignored reconciliation, disrespected Indigenous people — that the contrast would be enough," Trudeau said, recalling his commitment in 2015. "That we'd be able to get things done quickly. That we'd be able to undo, rapidly, decades, generations, even centuries of institutional inertia."

That's essentially an admission of naiveté.

Trudeau said that "progress" and "action" have happened and that those who were on stage with him know that. "But not nearly enough," he added.

He pointed out that his government recognized and was implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and brought in legislation to protect Indigenous languages and transfer authority over child welfare. He insisted his government has turned over all its records on residential schools — a claim that is contested by some.

WATCH: Trudeau's visit to B.C. First Nation about repair, professor says

Trudeau's visit to B.C. First Nation about repair, UBC professor says

2 years ago
Duration 4:43
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation Monday was about repairing damage after he skipped an invitation to join them during the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Director of UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. She tells Power & Politics she's unsure how effective the repair was. 'Some people have accepted it, some people have not.'

Trudeau acknowledged his government has "a lot of catching up to do."

"But let us not forget that what took generations and centuries to break can never be fixed overnight," he added. "Not if it's going to last."

He contended that responsibility for reconciliation rests with all Canadians — a somewhat gutsy argument to make aloud when one is being accused of not doing enough.

He then directly addressed the government's failure to meet its own goal of bringing safe drinking water to every Indigenous community within five years.

Canadians losing faith in reconciliation

"Let us not throw up our hands and say, 'Because there remain boil water advisories in this country, nothing has been done,'" he said, after repeating the latest tally of boil-water advisories. "As you, as Indigenous people and leaders, and as non-Indigenous Canadians look and challenge us all to do more on reconciliation, let us remember that it is urgent and important and we have to keep working on it, but we cannot let challenges — or things that are more difficult than we expected — cause us to throw up our hands."

Trudeau isn't wrong to worry about cynicism. According to new research by the Environics Institute, the percentage of Canadians who believe "meaningful reconciliation" will be achieved in their lifetimes has fallen six points in the last five years, from 68 per cent to 62 per cent — with an even larger drop among those aged 18 to 29.

The percentage of Canadians who believe the policies of the federal government are the primary obstacle to achieving equality for Indigenous people has also increased by 11 points, from 26 per cent to 37 per cent.

Those numbers could demonstrate that Canadians are coming to a more realistic understanding of the size and nature of the problem. But it's still fair to ask whether Trudeau himself has contributed to that increase in skepticism.

Trudeau might be tired of Conservative and NDP claims that he has accomplished nothing. But on the issue of drinking water, more people may wind up feeling cynical about the Trudeau government than about the reconciliation project itself.

A more cautious politician might have been more careful about tempering his promises in 2015. But the Trudeau approach seems to assume that aiming high is good.

Trudeau may be making an unconscious gamble that, in the long run, his government's policy record will matter more than his rhetoric. But his latest failure to look before leaping only creates more pressure on him to show progress before the next election — only makes it harder to continue pursuing the government's jurisdictional dispute with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Fairly or not, Trudeau was already being accused of not doing enough. It would be an even larger problem for his party if those accusations are even louder whenever this government goes looking for a fourth turn in office.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.