Trudeau’s UN Indigenous Rights Speech Rings Hollow at Home
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ‘can talk a really good game, but at the end of the day, he’s not doing anything substantive to make any changes’ for indigenous people in Canada, says Pamela Palmater of Ryerson University
Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Canada’s young and photogenic Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the UN General Assembly last week and endeared himself when he acknowledged Canada’s colonial legacy; mistreating of indigenous first nations people, especially the neglect of its children. Further, he promised that his government would align itself with the UN Sustainable Devolvement goals and that Canada would finally sign the UN declaration for the rights of indigenous people.
Justin Trudeau: Children living on reserve in Canada who cannot safely drink, bathe in or even play in the water that comes out of their taps, that is the legacy of colonialism in Canada.
Sharmini Peries: How sincere is Justin Trudeau and his government when it comes to its stated convictions, and its track record when it comes to indigenous issues and environmental justice and of course sustainable economies? To discuss all of these matters, I’m joined by Professor Pamela Palmater, she is a Mi’kmaq lawyer, activist and politician. She is the chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto. Welcome back to The Real News, Pamela.
Pamela Palmater: Thanks for having me.
Sharmini Peries: Pamela, what is your reaction to what Prime Minister Trudeau said about Canada’s colonial legacy, and how he’s on course to change that legacy?
Pamela Palmater: His speech was clearly powerful. It contained a lot of positive messaging and of course, it’s a welcome departure from the former prime minister who denied any history of colonialism and had a very adversarial relationship with First Nations. That being said however, none of what was contained in his speech actually rings true here at home and that’s part of the problem. He has a fantastic way of inspiring people and making really emotive messages but at the end of the day what’s happening on the ground here in Canada speaks to a completely different reality.
Part of the problem with his speech is that he really historicizes responsibility for what First Nation conditions are here in Canada. We have the lowest socioeconomic indicators, we have a housing crisis, water crisis, murdered and missing indigenous women crisis. Our kids are overrepresented in foster care and prisons. The whole gambit and he would like the entire world to think that this is from colonization that happened hundreds of years ago, that these were mistakes that in the long ago past when in actual fact it’s this government and his government that’s making decisions that’s making the entire situation far worse.
Sharmini Peries: Now Trudeau announced a new department replacing the old Indian Affairs. Is that on the right path?
Pamela Palmater: No, it’s not on the right path, and even more than that it’s a prime example of how the relationship hasn’t changed. Out of the blue without any consultation with First Nations people here in Canada he announces two Departments of Indian Affairs instead of one. One was already bad enough. That’s 5,000 employees literally dedicated to trying to assimilate us and keep us in a state of chronic poverty. Now, he’s announcing two departments with two ministers, double the bureaucracy, literally double the paternalistic colonial structures, and we had no input. None of us asked for two departments of Indian Affairs.
What we asked him for was to abide by Canada’s own human rights laws, international human rights laws and to take real substantive action on all of the things that he talked about. It’s entirely hypocritical and contradictory for him to say that he upholds the sustainable development goals around women and empowering women and girls, when in fact here at home on National Aboriginal Day, his entire government stood up in Parliament and voted against gender equality for indigenous women and girls in the Indian Act. It simply makes no sense.
Sharmini Peries: Right. Prime Minister also talked about improving housing, education, better infrastructure on reserves, better access to clean water. These are very significant issues that the indigenous community has been screaming for attention on. Give us a sense of his track record since he’s been in office the last two years. Now, we know that the Canadian government in general and in the past has not been very attentive to these matters, but he actually names them, which is great. But what is his track record?
Pamela Palmater: Yeah, he’s had two years in office now to make some substantive change on the ground and he hasn’t. One of his examples is the elimination of boil water advisories in First Nations. There’s a large number of First Nations in Canada that don’t have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. He names off a couple of dozen boil water advisories that he’s addressed in the last two years. However, there’s actually more boil water advisories in First Nations now than when he first took office, which puts it well over 160 individual boil water advisories.
Things aren’t improving on the ground when you look at water. Similarly with housing, there’s more of a housing crisis since he’s been in office. There’s been an increase in the number of First Nation’s kids that have been stolen and placed into foster care. The over-incarceration rate of all indigenous people’s; men, women and children have increased in the last two years. He can talk a really good game, but at the end of the day he’s not doing anything substantive to make any changes or to at least stop the crisis from happening.
Worse than that, he’s not even abiding by Canada’s own human rights laws. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued a decision saying that Canada provides chronic underfunding for First Nations children forced into foster care. Sometimes less than half of what Canadian children get. He has failed to comply with that court order to such an extent that even the United Nations issued a report telling Canada it needs to follow its own domestic human rights laws because it’s certainly not doing it for First Nation’s children.
All of his messages really ring hollow, and the key question here really is why did he even give that speech to begin with? It certainly wasn’t going to impress First Nations here in Canada who know the difference. The real issue is that he’s vying for a seat on the UN Security Council and because he doesn’t have any other policy of note. He thought he would trot out First Nation suffering as a prop to make it look like he’s acting on human rights, and to really try to deflect attention away from the fact that Canada is before four United Nations treaty bodies on grave and massive human rights violations against First Nations. He simply can’t get away from that.
Sharmini Peries: All right Pamela. One of the things that Prime Minister Trudeau also referred to in his speech is the new Canadian European Union’s comprehensive economic and trade agreement; also known as CETA. The Canadian version of much malign TTIP which went into effect the very day he was giving that speech. Let’s listen.
Justin Trudeau: Today, CETA will expand opportunities for businesses, create good, well paying jobs for workers and deliver meaningful economic growth. The kind of growth that benefits all of our citizens, not just the wealthiest.
Sharmini Peries: Pamela, now even in reference to CETA, he made it sound like it was something that was very positive, that was going to address the needs of the sustainable economy in Canada, but the aboriginal communities at the forefront, on the front lines know different. Tell us about what it means if this act goes into … this agreement goes into effect fully.
Pamela Palmater: First of all, CETA, as well as the ongoing TPP negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the US, and Mexico, all of these agreements are negotiated in secret, behind closed doors and without any substantive First Nation participation or consent. You’ll recall that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada claims to support holds front and center the right of indigenous peoples to free prior and informed consent to anything, any activity that could potentially impact their lands, waters and resources. None of that is happening here in Canada. What’s the legal effect of that? Well, the legal effect of CETA, by not getting the prior consent of indigenous peoples is that it renders it unconstitutional here in Canada and in violation of constitutionally protected aboriginal treaty rights separate and apart from the United Nations declaration. The same can be said for the ongoing NAFTA negotiations which will end up in the same unconstitutional and illegal place as CETA will if as it’s going right now it doesn’t involve First Nations in terms of getting their consent.
Sharmini Peries: All right. Much more to discuss here, but I cannot let you go without your comment on what Trudeau eluded to in terms of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Critics say that the process has been fraught with problems. Is this in fact the case?
Pamela Palmater: It is. It’s an absolute disaster. It’s been imploding since it was put together. The federal government has ignored calls to address it, to replace commissioners, to start over, to have a more comprehensive terms of reference and to reach out to family members. There’s literally thousands of family members of murdered or missing indigenous women who are not getting information, they’re not being contacted, they’re not being able to participate and give their testimony, and in addition to that, the experts and people in organizations withstanding such as myself and other women’s groups, we haven’t been given any information either.
There’s been no funding provided for our participation and we have no idea what their plan is. Instead of really coming together and saying, “Okay, it’s time for a reset.” Like our Truth and Reconciliation Commission suffered some of the same problems and they had to reset, and thank goodness they did. This group won’t do it. We’ve had mass resignations by senior staff members, a resignation by one of the commissioners themselves but the federal government refuses to step in and say, “Look. We’re gonna set this mess aside and do this right.” In the name of ongoing murdered and missing indigenous women, it’s a crisis that’s increasing and their failure to address it in this inquiry is absolutely astounding.
Sharmini Peries: Right. Actually one more question, Pamela. Give us a sense of all the broken treaties with the First Nations where the government of Canada has really simply not honored, so why should we believe this new set of commitments?
Pamela Palmater: Exactly. This is exactly the same thing, the same question that we ask other people. How can people ask us to have trust in this government’s nice words, which we’ve all heard for many centuries when there’s no action behind them? The reality is despite the fact that our treaties are protected in Canada’s constitution and they can’t be extinguished and they have to be implemented, Canada through its federal, and provincial, and territorial governments run roughshod over those treaty rights every day. Every day they’re making decisions about mining, oil, gas, environmental destruction on our territories without talking to us. When we try to stand up and defend our lands from mass destruction, they send in SWAT teams, or the military. They put us in prison, or what they usually do is they have us tied up in very expensive litigation for decades and decades, and that’s where we are now. The federal government literally has hundreds of cases against us trying to deny our aboriginal and treaty rights.
Sharmini Peries: The final question, by signing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, will the aboriginal community, First Nations communities in Canada have some recourse at the UN in terms of failure of the Canadian government to address and protect the rights of indigenous people?
Pamela Palmater: Here’s the thing about UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What Canada said is that it supports the declaration but it hasn’t implemented that declaration into law in Canada. So unless it does that, it won’t become domestic law. That means that we can only use UNDRIP in international forums at the United Nations, and we have been. We have been citing it before racial discrimination, women’s committees, economic and social rights committees, human rights committees and there have been numerous reports from the United Nations saying that Canada’s violating our rights. Massive and grave violations, alarming violations and they’ve issued directions to Canada to stop these violations, but time and time again, Canada continues with these violations because there’s really not much of an enforcement mechanism at the United Nations to force Canada to do anything.
Sharmini Peries: Pamela Palmater with the Ryerson University in Toronto. I thank you so much for joining us and shedding light on the real struggles of indigenous people against the Canadian liberal government of Justin Trudeau. Thank you very much.
Pamela Palmater: Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.