As It Happens

All talk and no action? Liberals will deliver on Trudeau's promises to First Nations, Philpott says

After Justin Trudeau's UN speech about First Nations issues, As It Happen asks Minister Jane Philpott if the government will match those strong words with actions.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says her new department will deal with First Nations water, health and suicide crises. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Story transcript

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Canada a "work in progress" as he described the country's colonial past and failures to deal with issues facing Indigenous people.

He spoke about suicide, climate change, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the more than 150 boil water advisories on First Nations in Canada, all while expressing a hope to right the wrongs of the past.

The speech earned Trudeau applause at the UN, but many Indigenous leaders are saying it's time for less talk and more action. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott about the speech and the Liberal government's track record on Indigenous relations. Here is part of that conversation.

A lot of Indigenous people were saying: Great words from the prime minister; where is the action though? We heard [NDP Indigenous and northern affairs critic] Romeo Saganash saying, "How can the prime minister keep claiming to the world that this is the most important relationship, when in reality he's letting them down?" What do you say?

In fact, as you said, many people from First Nations, Inuit and ​Métis communities have expressed their appreciation that the prime minister took this topic to the world stage by speaking directly to the importance of this work at the United Nations. And, in fact, this has been a priority for our government right from the start. The prime minister made that very clear.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

But where's the evidence of that?

One of the things I would point to is the decision that he made a few weeks ago by essentially doubling our efforts in terms of addressing the important needs of reconciliation by starting two new departments — the work that Minister [Carolyn] Bennett's going to be doing with Crown-Indigenous relations and appointing me to take over the area of Indigenous services.

This means we are so determined to address these huge socioeconomic gaps, which are as a result of the failed relationships that we've had with Indigenous Peoples in this country, and that has its result in this terrible crisis that we see in young people who die by suicide, in dealing with the fact that people don't have access to clean drinking water, that there's housing shortages.

I will now be focusing the entire efforts of this new department on addressing these socioeconomic gaps.

Carolyn Bennett, left, is the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, while Jane Philpott, right, is in charge of Indigenous services. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

You've been the government already for two years and you're saying this re-arrangement will improve things. And yet today we have a report that First Nations girls in Saskatchewan with a suicide rate 26 times that of girls in Saskatchewan in the general population. This is a crisis. This is an emergency.  I mean, what are you going to do immediately?

We are quadrupling the number of mental wellness teams so that when these kinds of crises happen, we can get a team of supports of mental-health workers into these communities immediately, and that's been happening all across the country.

But the reality is these horrible crisis of young people who die by suicide is not just something that is a result of immediate circumstances, but this is that generational, longstanding result of abuse and the fact that young people don't have hope for their future. They're not able to get access to an education. They doubt whether they'll be able to have a good job and a good standard of living.

And that's why we have to do those medium and longterm efforts as well to address all of those things like housing, like water, like education, so that kids will have the hope and then, of course, ultimately, just restoring that relationship.

How do you restore that trust when ... your government has spent, $700,000 in legal fees fighting the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order that you stop discriminating against Indigenous children? That, as [First Nations child advocate] Cindy Blackstock has said, four non-compliance orders, the most recent order linking non-compliance to the tragic deaths of two 12-year-old girls

This is an area where we're taking a very renewed approach and, in fact, I'm now meeting regularly with Cindy Blackstock directly to discuss some of these issues.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde listens to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society at a press conference in Ottawa. Blackstock says the federal government is still shortchanging kids a year after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the child welfare system is underfunded, and discriminatory. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

There's been a tremendous amount of work and activity that has been done on the matter of Jordan's Principle, for example. We've gone from zero children getting access to care to now 14,000 getting their requests approved to get care.

I certainly acknowledge that there's much more work to be done. It's terrible that children are being apprehended at rates that are absolutely unacceptable. We need to do the preventative work so that families will get the support they need, so that moms and dads will be able to address the reasons why their children are not with them, and re-unite families. This is, I would say, arguably, my very top priority in this new portfolio.

There are boil water advisories across this country. Some have been in place since 1995. Since November 2015, you've lifted 18 of them, but 12 more have been added. So what can you point to as progress in the area of delivering clean water to these communities?

We've actually lifted 26 longterm boil water advisories in the last couple of years. There's obviously much more work to do. I will be digging into this line by line, community by community to address exactly what the roadblocks are.

Neskantaga is home to Canada's longest-standing boil water advisory. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

We've made serious investments. Some of the work in these communities takes a year or two, and there's been a real challenge in the past because, up until our government came into the leadership position, they were getting short-term funding. There was only enough time to develop a plan for a water treatment station and then the funding stopped.

So we've given longterm funding. We're working with these communities ... and we're going to make sure that all of these longterm boil water advisories are lifted.

How much money? What's the budget? Tell me a dollar figure for what you're going to spend in the next year giving clean drinking water to these communities.

I'll have to get back to you with an exact amount over the next year, but I can tell you that we will put the money into this to make sure that we get it done.*

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*After this interview was recorded, Philpott's spokesperson sent the following numbers regarding funding for First Nations boil water advisories:

As of June 30, 2017, 318 projects are underway, with $458.6M in investments

  • 36 projects in planning stage.
  • 75 projects in the design stage.
  • 149 projects are in the construction stage.
  • 37 support projects.
  • 21 projects completed.