Sym­bols only go so far

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT -

When Indige­nous ac­tivists sym­bol­i­cally re­oc­cu­pied tra­di­tional Al­go­nquin land by erect­ing a teepee on Par­lia­ment Hill last week, Justin Trudeau paid a visit and spoke with them for about 40 min­utes.

When At­tawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence be­gan a six-week hunger strike on Vic­to­ria Is­land in the shadow of Par­lia­ment Hill in late 2012, the prime min­is­ter of the day, Stephen Harper, never met with her and was loath to ut­ter her name.

Weeks after his cabi­net was sworn in, the Trudeau govern­ment an­nounced a na­tional in­quiry into mur­dered and miss­ing Indige­nous women.

“In­ac­tion” on a na­tional tragedy “ends to­day,” said Indige­nous Af­fairs Min­is­ter Carolyn Ben­nett.

On any govern­ment’s most vex­ing file, two very dif­fer­ent styles. Two very dif­fer­ent mes­sages.

Harper usu­ally ap­peared churl­ish and dis­tant, Trudeau re­spect­ful and ac­com­mo­dat­ing.

But are the re­sults, so far, all that very dif­fer­ent?

This Cana­dian aware­ness of the need to forge real rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion may have be­gun, in its most re­cent in­car­na­tion, with the Idle No More move­ment and gained much mo­men­tum with Sin­clair’s land­mark re­port, but it is Trudeau who has moved the is­sue into the Cana­dian main­stream.

To his credit, Trudeau has el­e­vated Indige­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to what we used to call a wa­ter cooler is­sue.

But in so do­ing, Trudeau has el­e­vated ex­pec­ta­tions for re­dress and ac­tion on potable wa­ter, child wel­fare, child sui­cide and other real griev­ances. He has el­e­vated those ex­pec­ta­tions among both Indige­nous and non­Indige­nous Cana­di­ans.

So far, he has proved adept at the sym­bolic.

He has scraped the name of res­i­den­tial schools ad­vo­cate Hec­tor-Louis Langevin from the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice across from Par­lia­ment Hill, and he has re­named Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Day to Na­tional Indige­nous Peo­ples Day.

The long va­cant for­mer U.S. em­bassy, will be­come a space ded­i­cated to Inuit, Métis and First Na­tions people.

But his mur­dered and miss­ing women in­quiry ap­pears in cri­sis, los­ing se­nior staffers, frus­trat­ing fam­i­lies who wish to tell their sto­ries, run­ning be­hind sched­ule and al­most cer­tain to re­quest more fund­ing.

You can al­most hear Harper’s words about lawyers ben­e­fit­ing at the ex­pense of vic­tims echo­ing in the back­ground.

Trudeau’s govern­ment has adopted the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion on the Rights of Indige­nous People, but has made it clear that a clause giv­ing Indige­nous peo­ples free, prior and in­formed con­sent on re­source projects does not in­clude an Indige­nous veto.

A study re­leased Tues­day by the In­sti­tute for Re­search on Pub­lic Pol­icy says the ab­sence of a shared un­der­stand­ing of the clause cre­ates frus­tra­tions, con­flicts and a deep­en­ing lack of trust.

“It is ul­ti­mately not con­ducive to the de­vel­op­ment of a sus­tain­able nat­u­ral re­source econ­omy in Canada, let alone po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Indige­nous peo­ples,” say au­thors Martin Papil­lon and Thierry Rodon, who call for Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties to be­come full part­ners on re­source projects where they have ju­ris­dic­tion over the land.

Be­yond his sym­bolic an­nounce­ments, Trudeau was asked a ques­tion of sub­stance about his govern­ment’s con­tin­ued re­fusal to im­ple­ment a Cana­dian Hu­man Rights Tri­bunal or­der to in­crease fund­ing for child wel­fare on re­serves, and he could not an­swer.

He talked about end­ing boil wa­ter ad­vi­sories, spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture and more men­tal health work­ers.

There are an es­ti­mated 150 drink­ing wa­ter ad­vi­sory or boil or­ders in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties.

Too of­ten, fund­ing for men­tal health help in com­mu­ni­ties strug­gling with youth sui­cide is stuck in some bu­reau­cratic vor­tex.

Sym­bols are nice. But you didn’t see Indige­nous peo­ples cel­e­brat­ing the re­nam­ing of the Langevin block last week­end. Trudeau is run­ning the dan­ger of in­flat­ing ex­pec­ta­tions he can­not ful­fil.

Tim Harper writes on na­tional af­fairs. His col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

TIM HARPER

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