Reconciliation: The False Promise of Trudeau’s Sunny Ways

Under the Liberals, statements of moral feeling have been elevated to a governing strategy

A series of photos of Justin Trudeau with his head down
The Walrus

Justin Trudeau’s smiling face is being beamed from a giant screen into a cavernous conference hall as he lauds the benefits of Canada’s mineral and oil wealth to an audience of Indigenous youth. “I’ve said it before, and I promise I’ll say it again, but as young people, you’re not just the leaders of tomorrow, you’re the leaders of today,” he tells them. “We need your voices and vision to build a natural-resources sector that is just, sustainable, and inclusive.” Charming a crowd with earnestness is vintage Trudeau, but on this occasion, it isn’t clicking. When he finishes his speech, the applause barely rises to a smattering. Most in the hall are focused on their cellphones or their lunches of salmon and wild rice.

It’s the opening of “Our Land, Our Future,” a national summit on resource extraction put on in November 2017 by the Conference Board of Canada, the business think tank and lobby group. They expected a friendlier audience: the $1,500 registration fee, which no resolute critic could possibly stomach, has been waived or steeply discounted for hundreds of young Indigenous people flown into the Grey Eagle resort and casino in the Tsuut’ina First Nation, on the outskirts of Calgary. Officials from industry and government mingle in the crowd. Above the stage, the names of corporate sponsors flash across the screen: Shell, Suncor, Enbridge, miner Teck Resources, SNC-Lavalin, and major hydro companies.

The response to Trudeau’s speech is only the first hiccup of the summit. A vice-president of SNC-Lavalin, moderating a youth panel later that afternoon, is struggling to generate enthusiasm for questions about how to increase Indigenous involvement in resource projects. After consulting his notepad, he asks, “What is the good life to you?”

“Living the good life has nothing to do with money,” replies Olivia Ikey, a member of the Qarjuit youth council in Nunavik. “We need clean rivers and clean energy and to be able to eat the moose and to live like we always have,” adds Mitchell Case, who serves on the youth council of the Métis Nation of Ontario. The last to answer is Rosalie LaBillois, a cheerful twenty-year-old Mi’kmaq student from New Brunswick. “It’s about the healing and love that comes from our people,” she says. “The connection that we have to land, no one should be able to take that away. We need to live our truths when we make decisions about resource development. The government has tried to tell us who we are. We are so much more than they think.” As the young audience breaks into applause, the vice-president shifts in his seat. “That’s very insightful,” he says, looking deflated.

The clash of views onstage is a sign that the barely veiled goal of the summit—ensuring young Indigenous people become partners with, rather than opponents of, corporate Canada’s resource rush—might be more elusive than hoped. And, if the mood in the hall is an indication, “Our Land, Our Future,” taken seriously as a principle rather than a PR slogan, may not include any place whatsoever for the likes of Shell and Suncor. By the time the summit concludes, the next day, with a session harvesting advice on how companies can “better approach” Indigenous communities, it is mostly older people who remain in the hall. They trade suggestions about offering cultural-sensitivity training to employees or wearing casual attire instead of suits. The youth have escaped back to the hotel.

A year and a half earlier, at this same venue, Justin Trudeau received a much warmer reception. During a public ceremony in the spring of 2016, not long after his election, the leaders of the Tsuut’ina First Nation thanked Trudeau for his commitment to Indigenous peoples. They gifted him a ceremonial headdress and an Indigenous name, Gumistiyi, “the one who keeps trying.” As cameras flickered, he locked arms with Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde and danced energetically around the hall.

A painting of Trudeau in his new headdress now hangs in the foyer of the resort’s hotel. It isn’t the most flattering portrait: his chin is upturned in pomp, his lips pursed in a look of pride. On the last night, a crowd of young summit participants hang around the portrait, joking about alternate translations of Trudeau’s new Indigenous name. “The one who keeps trying to fool you” elicits the most laughter.

Until very recently, Indigenous peoples were not a public preoccupation of the country’s political and corporate elite. In 2004, under the last Liberal government, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Andy Mitchell was advised to keep a lid on their media profile. “Low public awareness of aboriginal issues may in fact lead to a more stable and relaxed public environment, which is more conducive to reasoned policy approaches to the file,” a secret government memo suggested. It was bureaucratese for an old, straightforward dictum: keep the Indians out of sight and out of mind. The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs preferred to manage the affairs of Indigenous peoples as they saw fit, hidden from the scrutiny of potentially sympathetic non-Indigenous Canadians by distance and official jargon. While other government departments issued a press release practically every day, they published barely two or three a month. What media coverage did occur, in any case, was rarely well-informed: ten years ago, you would not have found a single Indigenous person granted regular space in the mainstream media.

The Idle No More movement changed this. The effusion of activism that began in December 2012 cracked the country’s cold, placid political surface. Led by Indigenous women, the most marginalized of a marginalized population, the movement showed an unparalleled spirit of generosity toward nonnative people. Anyone who accepted an outstretched hand inviting them into a Round Dance will remember the astonishing feeling of connection and friendship. The story captivated even the corporate media, which, breaking with a long pattern of unsympathetic reporting, was often supportive. The attention that Indigenous peoples had gained with their organizing, much to the government’s chagrin, had obliterated a “stable and relaxed public environment.”

During those winter months, the movement’s activists didn’t just occupy malls and legislatures, city squares and highways. They occupied the public imagination. When Idle No More’s organizational activities began to wane, it had not achieved any reforms to the institutions or policies of the Canadian government. But its cultural and social impact was profound. In the years since, Indigenous peoples have become an increasing presence in multiple spheres: as op-ed writers in newspapers and commentators on radio, television, and social media; as professors in new university programs; and as leaders of legal firms, think tanks, and environmental organizations. Canadians are listening to Tanya Tagaq and Jeremy Dutcher, reading Eden Robinson and Leanne Simpson, viewing the art of Christi Belcourt and Kent Monkman, watching the films of Tasha Hubbard and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril—the dazzling cultural constellation of a rising social movement. And, were it not for Idle No More, the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, in 2015, might not have had the impact it did. Rather than being ignored, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the mid-1990s, it was carried into broader consciousness by the catalytic force of a social movement.

This new era—with “reconciliation” increasingly as its byword—raised the expectations by which we judge politicians. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper had apologized, in 2008, for residential schools, which he was legally obligated to do by an agreement between the AFN and Paul Martin’s Liberals, who were themselves trying to head off a costly lawsuit launched by survivors. All of Harper’s other gestures, however, communicated contempt. He suggested that Canada had “no history of colonialism” at a G20 gathering in Pittsburgh. He shrugged off calls for an inquiry into thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. He spurred Idle No More’s growth by refusing to agree to the reasonable demands of hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence. One image summed up his aloof and dismissive approach: when Justice Murray Sinclair delivered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, in Ottawa, to a standing ovation, Harper’s minister of aboriginal affairs was the lone person in the room stuck to his seat.

In style, Justin Trudeau was to grandiloquently reverse this approach. While running for the Liberal leadership, Trudeau had been among the first politicians to visit Theresa Spence in her teepee near Parliament, an indication of his team’s exceptional ability to read shifting political currents. When it came time to launch his campaign for federal office, his team decided to not simply wait to react to the changing balance of forces heralded by Idle No More. While Harper had stonewalled the movement, Trudeau would harness its hope and promise and ride it to power.

His election in 2015 marked an explosion in the politics of reconciliation. The “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples, Trudeau told us, was most important. An inquiry was launched for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Jody Wilson-Raybould was appointed minister of justice and attorney general, the most powerful cabinet position ever held by an Indigenous person. Harper’s government had voted against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations, but Trudeau pledged to implement it unconditionally. Visitors to the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, were now greeted by the smell of sweetgrass wafting from a daily smudge in an elders’ lodge. “It’s a historic time,” Senior Assistant Deputy Minister Joe Wild declared in a video on the ministry’s website that featured interviews with the first bureaucrats in Canadian history to casually use the word “decolonization.”

But the transformation underway among the Liberal Party, government institutions, and the broader establishment was less a sea change than a shape-shift. Faced with an Indigenous uprising unlike anything in Canadian history, they were prepared to accept, and even help construct, a new public consensus—making a taboo of overt racism, cleansing our public squares of ugly tokens from our past, embracing the resurgence in Indigenous cultural expression, and adopting the language of Indigenous liberation. But, within this consensus, there were several great unmentionables: land, resources, power, and the sharing of any of it. Such a consensus would serve to contain and silence the transformative potential of Indigenous rights—held over vast territories, posing barriers to reckless extraction, and grounded in a vision of a different relationship to each other and the natural world.

In the “Our Land, Our Future” summit in Calgary, in legislation rolled out by the Liberals, and in conflicts on lands across Canada, you could trace the outlines of the real agenda behind reconciliation. It was not, in fact, a new agenda, but a modification of one that—mostly quietly and without fanfare—had, for decades, been overseen by all federal parties in power, driven and implemented by the state’s bureaucracy, and supported by the corporate elite. In many ways, it was an agenda as old as Canada itself, a project of remaking the northern half of a continent into a liberal political order based on private property and individualism, geared to the accumulation of profit and wealth, and dependent on the assimilation of Indigenous peoples and nations. This required, above all, the maintenance of control and jurisdiction over the lands, governments, and bodies of Indigenous peoples. Harper had presided over this agenda with belligerence, provoking incredible resistance. It was a testament to the beguiling charms of the new prime minister that his own efforts to steer it could be repackaged as a spectacular break with the past—and be advanced further than they ever had under Harper. Reconciliation wasn’t the unfinished business of confederation. It was the unfinished business of colonization.

In this late stage of colonialism, the most valuable resources to be extracted were no longer merely copper, oil, or timber. As was evident at the “Our Land, Our Future” summit, the country’s elite needed to extract something else: the consent of Indigenous peoples themselves. As the power of Indigenous peoples grew, in the law and on the land, in social movements and in cultural arenas, it was becoming ever more difficult to implement any agenda without their buy-in. To complete its unfinished business, the elite would thus have to win the hearts and minds of Indigenous peoples. It would also have to win those of non-Indigenous people, many of whom increasingly saw their interests, and the interests of our living planet, represented in the fundamental change sought by an Indigenous-rights movement. Some were even starting to call this elite mission by a specific name: the reconciliation industry.

When Justin Trudeau is about to deal with an especially sensitive situation, there is one sure way to tell: he dons a jean jacket. Like in the lead-up to the nation’s 150th birthday party, in the summer of 2017, when young Indigenous activists attempted to erect a protest teepee on Parliament Hill. Following tense confrontations with security, the group was allowed to set up in a corner of Parliament’s giant lawn. The situation was being monitored closely; half a million people were expected for celebrations in two days’ time.

The next morning, a denim-outfitted Trudeau surprised onlookers with a visit. Stepping shoeless into the teepee, sitting cross-legged with the youth, holding a feather offered to him: it was the image of authenticity and openness, the shedding of the trappings of power. “You have a prime minister who is listening to you and who is looking forward to working with you,” he said in the teepee, “and you have an entire government that is interested in moving forward, hand in hand, in true partnership.” When one of the young women responded, you could hear in her voice, despite her skeptical instincts, that she believed him: she’d been disarmed. All that remained was for Gerald Butts to tweet a photo of Trudeau stepping out of the teepee, adding the #reoccupation hashtag used by the young Indigenous group. “We are on a journey of many steps,” Butts wrote. “This is just one of them.” The tweet was widely shared.

As with his teepee visit, each step of Trudeau’s journey became a clip in a heartwarming reel. We watched him paddle down the Ottawa River in a canoe with Indigenous youth; conduct a sunrise ceremony at dawn on the steps of Parliament Hill; carry water from house to house in the Manitoba First Nation of Shoal Lake 40, a community lacking potable water; and ice-fish in Northern Ontario’s Pikangikum, becoming the first prime minister to visit a remote, fly-in reserve. All of it was a walking, talking advertisement for reconciliation, offering the possibility of redemption for Canada’s long and brutal legacy of colonialism.

The public was meant to draw an obvious lesson: Trudeau was demonstrating that a government could act as graciously as he does, that a powerful state could relinquish its long-held control over Indigenous peoples as readily as he had shown up to a teepee for a heart-to-heart. Reducing politics to the posture of an individual—the art of symbolic state-craft—was a skill that Trudeau and his Liberal team mastered. He mastered it, in part, because it came naturally: Trudeau is not only likeable, but he clearly has a deep, abiding desire to be liked, even loved. He wants Indigenous peoples as his friends.

But colonial states make for poor friends. This is what Indigenous Secwepemc writer and activist Arthur Manuel had in mind when, in a posthumously published book of essays, he left a warning about Justin Trudeau. “Colonialism is not a ‘behaviour’ that can be superficially changed by a prime minister professing ‘sunny ways,’” he wrote. “It is the foundational system in Canada.” Manuel knew this as a matter of intergenerational struggle. His father, George Manuel, had been a leader of the National Indian Brotherhood—which later became the AFN—and an adversary of Pierre Trudeau’s policies, just as Manuel was to become one of the most prominent critics of Pierre Trudeau’s son. Manuel knew from hard experience that a pique of conscience isn’t a sign of a policy shift; that personal comportment was no substitute for political change; and that new friendships could form, indeed flourish, alongside an unreconstructed power structure.

But, under Trudeau, statements of moral feeling were elevated to a governing strategy. Canadians learned to expect a formal apology from him practically every few months: for residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, for the hanging of six BC Tsilhqot’in chiefs in the late 1800s, for the relocation of the Sayisi Dene in Manitoba, for the mistreatment of Inuit during tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1950s and 1960s, and for the conviction of Cree Chief Poundmaker on charges of treason. The apologies were so often delivered with Trudeau dabbing his eyes that Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson began calling him the “weeper-in-chief.” It reminded me of a Hebrew expression used to describe the behaviour of Israeli soldiers in occupied Palestinian territories: “yorim ve’bochim,” or “shooting and crying.” In this exercise of government myth-making, the reality of systematic abuses and human-rights violations against the Palestinians were explained away. Because these soldiers were said to cry, demonstrating the moral depth of what the Israeli state describes as the “most ethical army in the world,” the allegations against them couldn’t be true. In Canada, too, the government was colonizing and crying, with Trudeau’s tears over past actions, no matter how sincere, bathing us in a renewed innocence about present policies.

It’s a new era of reconciliation. It’s a continuing era of colonization. And Trudeau may be its perfect politician: woke, teary, and sympathetic, presiding over a project of dispossession that proceeds unabated.

It was April 2018, and the Liberal Indigenous Peoples’ Commission was gathering at the party’s convention in Halifax. Minister Carolyn Bennett was doling out gifts at the front of the room. The mood was upbeat. Co-chair Chad Cowie, from the Mississaugas of Rice Lake First Nation, was invited up to receive a framed art print. He had been instrumental, Bennett told everyone, to the Liberals’ electoral success in 2015. “Chad’s master’s thesis and his work were crucial in helping us identify the ridings we could flip if we could get out the Indigenous vote,” she said. “It was a make-or-break moment for us.”

When I chatted, after the meeting, with Cowie, he admitted to being surprised by his impact. “I had made the argument that the party should do outreach and not just show up during election time,” he said. “I guess some of that stuff reverberated through the party structure.” His thesis, published in 2013, had mapped out “influential” or “decisive” ridings where Indigenous populations represented a significant or majority voting block. The Liberals’ extra efforts in these places paid off: they defeated both Conservatives and New Democrats in Kenora, Winnipeg, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories. Indigenous peoples had not only voted overwhelmingly for Liberals but, like Cowie, had joined the party in record numbers. In 2012, the Liberals had just 350 registered Indigenous members. By 2018, he said, they had over 5,000.

At the time, there were plenty of other reasons for the Liberals to be confident. Media coverage about their “most important relationship” was reliably glowing. To cultivate political support, the prime minister and key members of the Liberal cabinet were involved in secretive half-day “learning sessions” with select establishment-friendly Indigenous leaders, including Phil Fontaine, Ed John, and Willie LittleChild. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, chummy with Trudeau, looked like he would comfortably win reelection. The AFN’s funding, following cuts under Stephen Harper, had also been increased from $10 million to $34 million in 2018. Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould received huge applause at the convention, second only to the prime minister’s reception. She cast a powerful symbolic spell on party members and the public. The reconciliation agenda, by any measure, was humming along smoothly.

Through the spring of 2018, the Liberals were buoyed by the success of Trudeau’s Valentine’s Day address in Parliament, which announced “historic” Indigenous-rights legislation. It was perhaps Trudeau’s best speech ever—eloquent, critical of his own party’s history, and politically slippery. “If you look at how things have been handled in the past, it’s hard to say that [Indigenous] skepticism is misplaced,” he said. What gains had been made—like the affirmation of Aboriginal rights, in section thirty-five of the Constitution, in 1982—had not been handed down from on high by a prime minister, he acknowledged, but won through Indigenous struggle from below. “You might recall,” Trudeau admitted, “that the government of the day, led by my father, did not intend to include these rights at the outset. It was the outspoken advocacy of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, supported by non-Indigenous Canadians, that forced the government to reconsider.” He talked empathically of the “mounting disappointment, the unsurprising and familiar heartache, and the rising tide of anger when governments that had promised so much did so little to keep their word.”

By the end of 2018, Trudeau promised, his government would introduce legislation that would make “the recognition and implementation of rights the basis for all relations” moving forward. This framework would pass into law before the next election, laying “the foundation for real and lasting change—the kind of change that can only come when we fully recognize and implement Indigenous rights.” Previous governments had sometimes mouthed the right words. But never before had the government sounded exactly like Indigenous peoples hoped they would.

While waiting on the plenary floor at the Liberal convention, I bumped into Chief Leroy Denny of the Mi’kmaq Eskasoni First Nation. “They are definitely not the Harper government,” he told me when I asked him about Trudeau’s party. “They talk with us, they listen, they are respectful, and they seem committed to a transformation.” That impression would soon become much harder to defend.

In Vancouver, three months later, Russell Diabo was onstage giving an unusual concession speech. He had just finished fourth in the race for national chief of the AFN, and he was using his final minutes at the microphone to blast certain Indigenous leaders, whom he accused of leading First Nations like cattle to slaughter. In the audience, supporters of reelected Perry Bellegarde began booing him. “Are those status-quo moos I hear?” Diabo retorted.

It wasn’t a typical concession speech, but then, Diabo wasn’t a typical politician. It was his first foray out of the backrooms after a forty-year career as a policy analyst, which included acting as adviser to former national chiefs Ovide Mercredi and David Ahenakew. A Mohawk from Kahnawake First Nation, he wears a ponytail, a silver moustache, and thick glasses that slip to the edge of his nose, giving him the look of a librarian. What makes it even easier to imagine him shuffling around an archive is that his knowledge of Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples is encyclopedic and instantly recallable. Diabo speaks, a friend of his once joked, in 100-word footnotes.

Just before the emergence of Idle No More in the fall of 2012, Diabo had written a long technical analysis of Stephen Harper’s agenda on Indigenous rights—what he considered a particularly aggressive version of the long-standing policies of the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. The article was so widely read and influential that it turned him into a kind of policy godfather of the movement. So when Justin Trudeau announced his “historic” legislation, Diabo applied his forensic lenses. He soon shared his critical commentary to 16,000 Twitter followers. Yet he seemed a lonely voice. On social media, prominent Indigenous commentators even suggested he cool it and give Trudeau a chance.

That wasn’t Diabo’s style. His father had been an ironworker on the high-rises of New York, his grandmother a tough traditionalist who taught him the importance of standing by what you believe. Diabo also had the benefit of an experience shared by few other Indigenous activists: he was once a ranking Liberal official. In the early 1990s, he and his friends, lawyers David Nawegahbow and Marilyn Buffalo, had joined the party as an “experiment,” Diabo recalls. During the Oka Crisis in 1990, Diabo used his connections to get then opposition leader Jean Chrétien smuggled into a motorboat, sped across the St. Lawrence river, and dashed into a meeting with Mohawk traditionalists behind the barricades in Kanehsatake. Later, he co-founded the Liberals’ Indigenous Peoples’ Commission and served as its vice-president of policy, helping write a section of Chrétien’s Red Book. At the time, it was the boldest declaration of support for Indigenous rights from any Canadian political party.

Rubbing shoulders with Liberal politicians and government officials, Diabo soon learned that the party was comfortable letting the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs run the show. “Chrétien’s advisor Eddie Goldenberg handed the Red Book to the bureaucrats and they told him, ‘Yeah, we can work with this,’” Diabo says. Any pretense of following through on Liberal commitments was abandoned as the age-old agenda of the ministry asserted itself. By 1996, Diabo had left the party and was working for Ovide Mercredi. That year, they split with the Liberals in dramatic fashion: outside the party’s convention in Winnipeg and in front of the media, Mercredi burned a copy of the Red Book. Diabo’s experiment with the Liberal party had gone disastrously wrong, but it had dispelled illusions that he would later watch others succumb to.

As Diabo evaluated the dizzying array of initiatives that were being quickly rolled out by the Trudeau Liberals, he grew more worried. Alongside the promised new framework, there were several other new pieces of legislation, a new cabinet committee to review Canada’s laws, ten new federal principles for dealing with Indigenous peoples, new fiscal policies, two new ministries of Indigenous affairs, and new political accords with the AFN. Guiding the direction was a special cabinet committee on reconciliation that met regularly, as well as a committee of deputy ministers from across several government departments. The Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous think tank based at Ryerson University, produced a report that tallied this staggering amount of activity: if the Liberals succeeded in bringing their bills into law, they would be responsible for 40 percent of all legislation related to Indigenous peoples passed by governments since 1867. On top of that, hundreds of First Nations had begun negotiations at tables created under the Liberals that were supported with hundreds of millions of dollars, which flowed into band council offices, paying the salaries of chiefs, staff, advisers, and lawyers. “That kind of money was buying a lot of silence and consent,” Diabo says. It was a “deliberate shock and awe strategy,” and it was lulling people into complacency.

As more details dribbled out about the legislation—soon named the Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework—Diabo and others began to see in it distinct echoes of the notorious White Paper of 1969. At the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberal government had put forward major legislation that he said would give Indigenous peoples “full equality.” Trudeau drew on the language of social movements, repeating the US civil rights movement’s call for an end to legal discrimination. But the legislation’s promise of equality was merely a weapon. It was, in fact, a culmination of the long-standing assimilationist aims of the Canadian government: municipalizing and privatizing reserves, abandoning treaties, getting rid of Indian status, and absorbing Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. A few decades later, Ovide Mercredi would offer a timeless critique. “They talk of equality after they’ve taken our land,” he said. “They talk of equality after they’ve taken our resources.” Indigenous peoples wanted out from the prison of the discriminatory Indian Act, but not for a fate they described as cultural genocide.

common ground display

As the fiftieth anniversary of the successful Indigenous effort to defeat the 1969 White Paper neared, Diabo issued a warning that Justin Trudeau’s legislation would itself undermine and terminate Indigenous peoples’ rights with consequences stretching generations into the future. The legislation would function, he argued, as an assembly line: those First Nations that agreed to enter the process would get packaged into a small legal box, their rights strictly limited. All powers of sovereign decision making and jurisdiction would remain with the federal and provincial governments. At the end, First Nations would not gain any powers of major commerce, international trade, or criminal law. They would have delegated authority only over local matters, like marriages, service delivery, and education. Provinces would have vetoes over any matter that concerned them, and the federal government would remain the unilateral decision maker. The cattle analogy Diabo was to later use at the AFN election wasn’t a glib remark—First Nations, he believed, were letting themselves be corralled and domesticated. The permanent disempowerment of Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens within Canada would be achieved through their self-surrender.

What appeared to be a sweeping transformation was, in fact, a skilful technique for managing the status quo: everything would appear to change in order for things to remain the same. It was the changeless change that the Liberals so excelled in. The outcome would be stamped as reconciliation but would, in fact, be what Indigenous peoples had been fighting in each generation: being consigned to small land bases, shorn of any say over developments in their traditional territories, with the right to administer their own poverty. This relationship wouldn’t be nation-to-nation. It would be nation-to-municipalization. Nation-to-glorified-reservation. Nation-to-dressed-up-subjugation.

In all of the legislation, Trudeau’s speeches, and Liberal Party declarations, there was one word that always went unmentioned: land. There was no talk of power sharing, of access to resources, and certainly none of land restitution. But the concerns of certain quarters were being taken care of. In a speech delivered to the Business Council of British Columbia in April 2018, Wilson-Raybould assured the corporate audience their interests would be looked after. If the legislation passed, she said, a “new, inclusive level of clarity and predictability will be brought to land and resource decision making.” In a short speech, she mentioned certainty—“which we all desire,” she told her listeners—no less than twenty-four times. This much-coveted certainty over jurisdiction is what would smooth the way for corporate investment, extraction, and accumulation. This was not any sort of decolonization. It was, Diabo concluded, Justin Trudeau trying to finish the work his father had started.

If the rise of the reconciliation industry has an accompanying downfall, it started somewhere along an icy, snow-swept winter road in northwest British Columbia. In the land of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, during a blisteringly cold early morning in mid-January 2019, a group of community members and hereditary chiefs huddled around a fire near a makeshift blockade.

For nearly ten years, they had maintained an organized presence in the pathway of a proposed pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from Dawson Creek, BC, to the coastal town of Kitimat. In that time, a ramshackle camp manned by a few people turned into a well-populated minivillage with a traditional pit lodge and a healing centre offering land-based education that drew Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from across the province. In December 2018, the company behind the pipeline project, Coastal GasLink, had sought an injunction to remove the camp—suspiciously timed for when one of its main leaders, Hereditary Chief Smogelgem, had received news of his mother’s passing. It was granted by a lower provincial court, dubiously ignoring Supreme Court precedents recognizing the authority of the Wet’suwet’en in their territory, as well as the fact that the pipeline had yet to gain regulatory approval from National Energy Board hearings set for later in 2019.

Just a few months earlier, the Liberal government’s efforts to manufacture the consent of First Nations for its major piece of legislation—its hoped-for crowning achievement—had faltered. But if there was anything to demonstrate that, no matter the means, a colonial state would get its way, it was what came next: heavily armed RCMP moving in on a makeshift wooden gate the Wet’suwet’en had erected on the winter road. The Trudeau government could have intervened, imposed an approach of mediation or de-escalation. It didn’t. Images of the police aggressively arresting a group of unarmed land defenders were soon carried by media globally, inspiring sympathy and anger.

Over the next days, hundreds of Vancouver students walked out of their high schools, taking their message to the downtown office of Coastal GasLink. In Victoria, 1,500 rallied; others round-danced and blocked a bridge in Toronto; and a large march in Ottawa occupied a building where Justin Trudeau was intending to give a speech. In the speed of response, in size and scope, in online interest, it was an outpouring of support for Indigenous rights unlike anything ever seen in Canada.

A week later, Trudeau met with regional chiefs from the AFN, in a closed-door meeting, in Ottawa. According to a memo written by Gord Peters, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Trudeau was pointedly asked why the RCMP had intervened this way on unceded lands. The chief reminded him of the country’s most important land rights case, the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court decision, which had established the existence of Aboriginal title—and which had involved the Wet’suwet’en and the very land in question.

In response, Trudeau surprised the chiefs by recounting Aesop’s fable about the sun, the wind, and their competition to disrobe a traveller of his jacket. Trudeau reminded his audience that his approach was that of the warm, positive sun. “He said that his government was doing something totally new,” Peters wrote. It was like a broken record, a reconciliation-industry tune twisting and screeching on its tracks, insisting on its commitment to consent when all could see that coercion had become the order of the day.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals had tried to use their style of sunny, consensual politics as cover for the most enduring, profound conflict in the country: the clash of political orders involved in shunting Indigenous peoples aside. But there was no fable, photo op, or lofty speech that could gloss over a machinery of dispossession in motion as it resorted to uniformed men with guns, taking land by force, on a British Columbian frontier.

It made me think again of the portrait of Trudeau hanging in the Grey Eagle casino and resort outside Calgary. A headdress lush with feathers perched on his forehead, red paint dabbed on his cheeks, stage light illuminating his face: it was a mask Trudeau had worn better than any prime minister. It was a mask promising a desperately and urgently needed new path. And it was a mask donned by the defender of a colonial society in front of those he robbed. The mask had slipped.

Excerpted from The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent by Martin Lukacs. Copyright ©2019. Published by Black Rose Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Martin Lukacs
Martin Lukacs is an independent journalist and an environmental writer for the Guardian. He lives in Montreal.