Indigenous leaders give Liberals a failing grade for first year

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick]

It was going to be a new era in the long saga of Canada’s First Nations.

Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government campaigned on a long to-do list for Indigenous voters and they cast ballots in unprecedented numbers.

One year later, some say those promises rang empty and the new Liberal government has failed them.

“He hasn’t fulfilled a single promise that he made to First Nations,” says Pamela Palmater, an associate professor and chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

“Harper was the ultimate arch-villain of First Nations and Prime Minister Trudeau came in and he was all about the photo-ops and shaking hands and attending chiefs assemblies and sending his ministers out to meet with chiefs across the country. And that’s great, the symbolic part, but that’s all we have.”

So far, Indigenous Canadians are no better off under the Liberal government, she tells Yahoo Canada News.

The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is less than was promised and, despite claims to the contrary, the actual annual funding announced in the federal budget is within the two per cent cap, she says.

An extra $50 million a year for four years toward post-secondary education has not materialized, either, Palmater says.

Nor is there any plan of funding committed to implementing the 94 recommendations that emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, she adds.

“You can’t do that in a year, but he’s got no plan or budget in place and he didn’t even mention that in his budget,” she says.

The Liberals promised to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, but now say that is not legally feasible, Palmater says.

And the federal government has yet to abide by a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling in January that found the federal government discriminates against Indigenous children by under-funding child and family services on reserves.

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind Bridget Tolley, from the Kitigan Zibi reserve, as she holds an image of her mother during a rally in Ottawa. The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld]

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, too, is outraged that Ottawa has not complied with the human rights ruling and increased funding.

The Liberals’ many campaign promises prompted First Nations to cast ballots in unprecedented numbers last October, he tells Yahoo Canada News.

“We voted for a dramatic shift… in the aftermath of a 10-year, all-out war with the Harper government,” he says.

“One-year out we’re deeply, deeply disappointed with the lack of progress.”

To Palmater’s list he adds that the Liberals have not made promised changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment or National Energy Board systems but they have signed off on permits for the Site C dam hydroelectric project in northern B.C. and Petronas’ Pacific Northwest LNG project.

And the regulatory process for Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion continues under rules put in place by Harper’s Conservative government, he says.

“There are just so many instances where the Trudeau government has not followed through on the promises and commitments they made during the last election,” Phillip says.

“We’re sick and tired of empty promises. We’re sick and tired of being told that we need to be more patient and these things will come to pass.”

Tragedy and suffering continues, he says, citing a spate of recent deaths by suicide of young Indigenous girls in northern Saskatchewan.

“Get on with it,” he says.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is more circumspect but says there remains much to be done.

Trudeau made five key commitments to AFN chiefs: an inquiry into missing and murdered women, implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, lifting the two per cent funding cap, investment in education and a federal review of laws affecting Indigenous communities.

“There’s a lot of work. Expectations were raised,” Bellegarde tells Yahoo Canada News.

The inquiry “is not perfect, but it’s a start,” he says.

He lauded the “unprecedented” $8.4 billion committed to Indigenous funding in the last budget and a memorandum of understanding on funding between Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and First Nations leaders. It’s a work in progress, he says.

Beyond that, there still needs to be major investments to address the huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, he says.

“It’s only been one year. You’re not going to resolve these issues in one year,” he says. “Let’s be realistic.”

But the Liberals need to outline a plan, he says.

Palmater is less patient.

Trudeau may one be just one year in, but he’s only got three years left, she says. There are life and death issues that should have been addressed already.

“Some of these things he could literally change tomorrow,” she says. “He’s got no excuse for failure to act.”