Trudeau's UN speech highlights sad history of Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau addresses the General Debate of the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City. Photo from CP Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used his speech at the U.N. today to show that, contrary to the overwhelmingly positive press the country has received in the last two years, Canada is not without its problems.

The prime minister spoke frankly about an often-ignored part of Canadian history: its historic mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians and the current challenges the government faces in improving the relationship between the two parties. But he was also optimistic when addressing the ways in which those problems can be fixed.

“For First Nations, Metis Nation and Inuit peoples in Canada, those early colonial relationships were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” he told the U.N. General Assembly, contrasting the country’s past with the image most have of Canada today. “Regrettably, Canada is a country that came into being without meaningful consultations with those who were here first.”

Trudeau went through a list of grievances shared by the Indigenous peoples of Canada. He spoke about the legacy of residential schools, and the long term boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities. He also highlighted issues such as the anguish caused by the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women, and the suicide epidemic taking place in many northern Indigenous communities. The severity of these hardships and injustices, particularly the violence faced by Indigenous women, was called “a human rights crisis” by Amnesty International, a verdict with which he readily agreed.

Trudeau also criticized the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, which still dictates the relationship between the Crown and over 600 Indigenous bands and their members today. The prime minister said it was “the legacy of colonialism in Canada” and called it “paternalistic.”

Despite the damning verdict of his own country’s record, Trudeau remained optimistic about the possibility for progress and remedying historic wrongs. He said there was a plan in place for the Indigenous population to eventually deliver services once the domain of Canadian governments, allowing them to move towards self-government. In a nod to the UN, he said the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples formed some of the basis for his vision of a “new relationship” between the two parties.

“Though this path is uncharted, I am confident we will reach a place of reconciliation, that we will reach a place as a country where nation to nation, government to government, Indigenous to crown relations will be transformed,” he said.

Trudeau also tied Indigenous relations to climate change. The latter is an area to which he has devoted a significant amount of rhetoric. He highlighted the struggles northern Canadian communities have faced, and how the changing climate has dissuaded Indigenous elders from making predictions about the weather.

“We have a chance to build in Canada — and in fact, all around the world — economies that are clean, that are growing, that are forward-looking. We will not let that opportunity pass us by,” the prime minister said. “Canada will continue to fight for the global plan that has a realistic chance of countering it.”

In contrast with the sabre-rattling of U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech at the U.N., Trudeau appealed to the spirit of international cooperation in moving forward through some of the biggest crises the global world order has faced in generations.

“We can’t build a better world unless we work together, respect our differences, protect the vulnerable, and stand up for the things that matter the most,” Trudeau said. “I know it will be hard work, but I remain confident for Canada’s experience shows this to be true. Any challenge can be met if we meet it together.”