No federal candidate raised First Nations expectations and hopes more than Justin Trudeau did in 2015. While other politicians had addressed our issues at leadership debates, or in parliament, Trudeau seemed to go out of his way to connect with Indigenous people and to make our issues central to his campaign. When Attawapiskat leader Teresa Spence was asking to meet Stephen Harper during her 2013 hunger strike over the housing crisis on her reserve, it was Trudeau who visited her. When he took the leadership of the Liberal Party later that year, he cited the Idle No More movement as inspiration.
His connection to Indigenous peoples appeared to go beyond symbolism. In an APTN town hall, he promised us a veto over resource development. To the Assembly of First Nations he promised a new nation-to-nation relationship. He promised to end the boil water advisories in five years. He promised to launch an inquiry into the 1,200-plus Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. He promised us equal funding for education. He also promised to implement all ninety-four recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
To the Indigenous imagination, Trudeau was going to be on our side. While his father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, with the aid of his Indian Affairs minister, Jean Chretien, had attempted to destroy our nations with his infamous white paper (which would eliminate Indian Status, abrogate the treaties, and break up reserves), his son appeared set to make up for that original sin. Stephen Harper helped too. The policies of his regime, such as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, inspired a lot of anger among First Nations people, and provided fuel for the Idle No More movement. But what took that anger to the ballot box was pipelines through our lands, saying “in one year we were able to do what 10 years of the previous government was unable to do.”
Trudeau has been speaking about First Nations to non-Native audiences. Just last week Justin Trudeau apologized for comments made in Rolling Stone about his charity boxing match with First Nations senator, Patrick Brazeau. Trudeau described his selection process that ended with him choosing Brazeau, saying: “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint.”
It’s an ugly comment that brings to mind stereotypes of Native men as rough and dangerous (a stereotype that, a year ago this month, cost one Native youth, Colten Boushie, his life when a farmer, seeing him as a threat, shot him to death while he was asking for help to change a tire). It’s also disturbing to hear Trudeau highlight Brazeau’s indigeneity as a “nice counterpoint” to himself. That’s how the Harper government treated us. We were the “foil” Harper used in fundraising pitches that talked about greedy chiefs, and First Nations men in particular were the foil for Harper’s Indian Affairs Minister, Bernard Valcourt whose solution to the MMIW crisis was to attack First Nations men: “Obviously, there’s a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves,” he said. “If the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that’s how they are treated.”
The Trudeau government is clearly aware of their failings with the Indigenous public. Their campaign of symbolic gestures has increased recently, with notable examples including the renaming of the Langevin Block, the handover of the former US Embassy to Indigenous people, and Justin Trudeau’s visit to the protest tipi on Parliament Hill. However symbolism cannot overcome two years of slow-motion reforms, and policy mistakes.
Post election, I was one of those First Nations people who was inspired to get active in the Liberal Party, to make sure our priorities weren’t forgotten. But between the time I fought to get nominated as an Indigenous delegate to the 2016 convention, and the convention itself—enough had happened, or rather not happened, to sour me on direct engagement with the Liberals. The party was remote and unresponsive—my outreach to my local riding association, the Indigenous Liberals, and to anyone in the party went unanswered. No items appeared on their Indigenous commission’s agenda until the last minute, and any avenue towards actively engaging with the party, or bringing forth issues was cut off in favour of a heavily scripted victory lap at the convention. It appeared that Indigenous policy was developed from the top-down. As I discovered the futility of the venture, I skipped the convention, and let my membership lapse.
There is a debate in First Nations communities about whether we should participate in Canadian politics or keep our distance. Ojibwe writer Martha Troian wrote about this controversy for Media Indigena. Quoting Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, Troian wrote:
“The idea of leaders and intellectuals promoting political energy and activism into a political party in the Canadian electoral system is harmful, according to Alfred. He says First Nation leaders need to promote the idea of nationhood instead. They talk about it all the time, and yet they are massive hypocrites by getting involved in electoral politics.” She continues: “For Alfred, First Nations individuals need to choose between one or the other.”
The AFN and many centrist and right-leaning First Nations activists, however, propose that voting is the best way to push the Indigenous agenda forward, and that an energized Indigenous voting block has the power to control enough seats to have real influence in parliament. Other First Nations thinkers like Sto:lo activist Robert Genaille take a realist approach. “We explain to our youth that we can resist the system by not participating in it,” he says, “but that doesn’t benefit us in any way. Instead, it allows us to be invisible.”
Trudeau’s outreach to First Nations, and his talk of the nation-to-nation relationship, as well as his policy proposals swayed abstainers. He showed them that you didn’t have to betray your nation by voting, that if we work in the system, devote our energies to that, we can move our Nations ahead further than we could with protest and opposition.
But today Trudeau is in the process of losing Indigenous people. And if he loses us, he takes the wager we made on Canada with him. He will have made the abstainer’s case more powerfully than they ever could. He will have proved that being Canadian and being Indigenous are incompatible, and there is only one way to engage with Canada: through confrontation.