Ken CoatsPrime Minister Trudeau gave a powerful speech at the UN outlining Canada’s responsibility for the ills experienced by Indigenous peoples, writes Ken Coates. But fine words need to be matched by action.

By Ken Coates, Oct. 5, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a rousing and warmly received speech at the United Nations on September 22. The talk was a tad self-congratulatory, but it was perhaps the most powerful mea culpa in Canadian diplomatic history. The Prime Minister laid out, quite graphically, the nation’s responsibility for the social, cultural and economic ills experienced by Indigenous peoples in the country.

He erred when he claimed there was a national determination to make things right. We are edging closer to a political consensus – closer than we have been in decades, perhaps – but Canadians are far from unanimous. More than a few Canadians are worried about the Prime Minister’s commitment to Indigenous empowerment and government-led investments and policies, which are designed to rectify problems created by, you guessed it, government-led investments and policies.

It is hard to believe that enough Canadians have read the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to assert that Canadians endorse its full and immediate implementation. Prime Minister Trudeau did not use the UN podium to make any major policy or spending pronouncements. Many remain unconvinced that the Liberal government will make major headway on this file.

This said, Trudeau’s UN speech had more platitudes and assertions than evidence.

I think that they will. No government in Canadian history has moved Indigenous affairs to the centre of their policy agenda. For better or worse, the Prime Minister has staked his government’s reputation, if not their electoral success, on their now-global declarations of intent to set right the evils of colonialism. This is an act of great political courage -- sure to generate a great deal of hostility -- and it should be recognized as such.

This said, Trudeau’s UN speech had more platitudes and assertions than evidence. First Nations, Metis and Inuit will look for firm and clear evidence that his public words translate into real action. The job is a great deal more complicated than the Prime Minister’s talk makes clear. Many Indigenous peoples live in remote areas, with limited connections to the market economy. Further, the Liberal government’s approach to climate change and natural resource development has the potential to limit if not undermine much of the economic activity that Indigenous peoples are counting on to produce wealth, jobs and community independence.

UNDRIP is a large and complicated document. It includes sections that would require substantial changes in Canadian law and/or carry major financial commitments. Deciding where to go first – self-government or language preservation, economic development or education, appropriate housing or water and sewage – will take extensive negotiations. Yet urgent and comprehensive action is required in all of these sectors and more.

One major part of the Prime Minister’s statement focused on Indigenous self-determination. This represents a fundamental and overdue change in Canadian practice. Mr. Trudeau made it clear that he was ready to share power in significant and permanent ways. This is as it must be. First Nations, Metis and Inuit will succeed when they have the opportunity and the responsibility to define their future.

By taking Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples to the UN, Prime Minister Trudeau has raised the stakes. He has told the world that he, his government and the country as a whole must be held responsible and accountable for the social and economic ills experienced by Indigenous peoples. The country must take this speech as the start of a new era in Indigenous affairs – the day that the country truly accepted Indigenous peoples as full partners in Confederation.

The path ahead will not be without bumps and problems and it will cost much more than the Prime Minister and his government has found to date.

Some Canadians will not be pleased with Prime Minister’s bold and declarative statement. They will bring out the old arguments about the shortcoming of special status, the need for a “level playing field,” and shortcomings in the daily operations of Indigenous governments. The path ahead will not be without bumps and problems and it will cost much more than the Prime Minister and his government has found to date.

There are good reasons for optimism, however. Canadians can look North – the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Northern Quebec – and see positive and constructive examples of what lies ahead. In the North, Indigenous peoples have asserted their Indigenous rights, negotiated their way into Canada, and forged the beginnings of real self-determination and true partnership.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s message of reconciliation, partnership and Indigenous self-determination are crucial and welcome. As he made clear, Canada owes a clear debt to Indigenous peoples for the errors and intrusions of the past. It’s time to build a new Canada, with real and sustainable partnerships with Indigenous peoples at its core.

But the words are the easy part. Converting promises and generalities into action is going to require national will and commitment. It’s time to be bold, Canada, like your Prime Minister. For the Trudeau government, it is time to act, learning from and listening to Indigenous peoples every step of the way.

Ken Coates is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.