Trudeau hits the reset button
It was June 2015, and Justin Trudeau, then leader of the third party and struggling in the polls, made what was seen by many at the time as a rather impulsive promise.
He quickly pledged to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been released that day by Justice Murray Sinclair.
Monday, more than 26 months after his pledge of reconciliation, a United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination reported it was “alarmed” that the Trudeau government continues to ignore multiple decisions by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to close the gap in funding for child and family services of Indigenous children.
Also Monday, Trudeau arrived at Rideau Hall and announced he would dissolve the “creaky old structures” of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs department, announced plans to kill the Indian Act and put one of his most trusted ministers into one of two new Indigenous portfolios.
Are we about to witness yet another gap between expectations and delivery?
There could be no loftier goal than Indigenous reconciliation, and Trudeau’s government deserves credit for making it a priority.
But there can be no tougher task for a government than trying to undo history, toss off the yoke of colonialism, address grievances and mistrust and deliver much-needed services quickly while dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy. All are needed to effect real change. When expectations collide with reality things can actually get worse.
Trudeau either made history Monday or made an admission that, mid-mandate, true reconciliation and timely delivery of services remain as elusive as ever.
Trudeau would never say the latter, but he did concede it would come as no surprise “that there are real challenges in terms of changing a relationship and improving a relationship and services that have foundered for decades, if not centuries.”
Hayden King, an Anishinaabe educator in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University, told me there is a concern that this move is just another Liberal symbol that will be “wrapping us up in process.”
Promises have been heard and discarded for decades. Under this government, the promises are yardsticks that allow Indigenous leaders to push for accountability.
“I never invest in any hope in a Canadian government,” King says, “because there is a mountain of empirical evidence that governments since 1867 have been acting to extinguish Indigenous rights and communities.”
Then there is Cindy Blackstock and her relentless fight to provide fairness for Indigenous children.
She took the government to the human rights tribunal and won in February 2016. The tribunal ruled that Ottawa discriminated against Indigenous children by underfunding child welfare services and not providing the same level of health care on reserves as the rest of the country.
In response, the Liberals have spent more than $700,000 fighting the original order and three subsequent noncompliance orders, according to numbers obtained by NDP leadership candidate Charlie Angus.
In June, the government took the tribunal to Federal Court over a ruling that linked inadequate health care to two suicides of 12year-old girls in Wapekeka First Nation.
“I look at this from a kid’s perspective,” Blackstock said. “Instead of helping me, Justin Trudeau is actually violating the law to thwart me. What kind of message is that sending to kids?”
The ministers involved in that challenge are Carolyn Bennett and Jane Philpott, the two ministers appointed to the Indigenous files by Trudeau Monday.
The good news is that Philpott, as the minister of Indigenous services, said her first priority would be child and family services and health care.
The better news is that this is a woman who is not only compassionate, but highly competent and clearly tough enough to deal with a bureaucracy if her hardball negotiating tactics with the provinces on health care funding are any gauge.
The best news is that Philpott is not a woman who will want to preside over more symbolic actions. A woman of substance will want to deliver substance.
Tim Harper writes on national affairs. His commentary appears in Torstar newspapers.