Trudeau defends record on Indigenous issues, as stump speech mentions are brief

WINNIPEG — Justin Trudeau highlighted the push for reconciliation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit at a rally Saturday night, an issue he has otherwise rarely raised when encouraging progressive voters to stick with him when they head to the polls Monday.

"We are doing it in a way that is grounded in respect and partnership, because that's what Indigenous Canadians deserve from their government," Trudeau said Saturday night in Winnipeg, where nearly 2,000 people attended a rally at the Punjab Cultural Centre.

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As prime minister, Trudeau said often that no relationship was more important to him than the one between Canada and Indigenous Peoples — language he included in the preamble to the mandate letters he sent to each of his cabinet ministers.

The first Liberal budget, in 2016, committed nearly $8.4 billion over five years to improving the lives and socio-economic conditions of Indigenous Peoples and their communities, which was hailed at the time as an unprecedented investment aimed at meeting high expectations.

Trudeau had, as Liberal leader, committed to implementing all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which delivered a report on the dark history and tragic legacy of the residential school system in Canada.

On the campaign trail this fall, Trudeau has made some platform promises relating to Indigenous issues, including on health care and moving Indigenous communities off diesel power generation. The platform also pledges to fully implement previous commitments, such as ending boil-water advisories on all reserves by 2021.

Still, mentions of Indigenous issues in his stump speeches have either been brief or absent.

Case in point: on Friday night in Vaughan, Ont., Trudeau listed off a litany of things he is promising progressive voters, but never once mentioned safe drinking water on First Nations reserves or anything else related to the file.

After being asked why, Trudeau insisted earlier Saturday that it remains a priority.

"We know how important it is to all Canadians that reconciliation, that economic opportunity, advances," Trudeau said Saturday in Hamilton.

Adding to the urgency of addressing Indigenous issues is a recent report by the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, which finds that Indigenous people in Canada face far greater barriers than non-Indigenous Canadians when it comes to securing safe housing.

"Indigenous lands and territories tend to coincide with areas that are most disadvantaged in terms of access to infrastructure, including access to drinking water and sanitation, education and health services," the report reads.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations has said he believes the Liberal government has done more for First Nations people than any other government in Canadian history — an assessment Trudeau pointed to in defending his record Saturday.

"But we also know there is much more to do," Trudeau said.

But Bellegarde has also shared his "deep disappointment" over how the federal government is appealing a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering Ottawa to pay billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children and their families.

The tribunal ruled the federal government had been "wilful and reckless" in discriminating against First Nations children living on reserves by chronically and knowingly underfunding child-welfare services.

It ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 for every First Nations child who was inappropriately taken away from their parents after 2006. The Assembly of First Nations estimates about 54,000 children and their parents could be eligible for the money, meaning the total compensation will likely exceed $2 billion.

"No amount of compensation can ever recover what you have lost, the scars that are left on your souls or the suffering that you have gone through as a result of racism, colonial practices and discrimination," the panel wrote in its September decision.

The government is appealing the damage award, saying the election makes it impossible to organize compensation by a Dec. 10 deadline.

"We absolutely agree and we will be moving forward to compensate them," Trudeau said Saturday.

The Liberal leader was also asked whether he thinks his government should have done anything differently to avoid getting to the point where they chose to appeal.

"We've been focused on reforming child and family services to make sure that kids in care get to stay in Indigenous communities, in their language, get the support they need, so they don't lose their culture and identity, which is so important to them," he said.

"That's at the core of how we move forward as a country in partnership with Indigenous Peoples."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who wants the human rights tribunal order on child welfare subjected to a judicial review, agreed that some children and families should be compensated.

"I believe that children who have been mistreated or families that have suffered because of policies of the federal government should absolutely be compensated," Scheer said Friday during a campaign stop in Fredericton.

Scheer has added a line in his stump speech in which he calls for people to vote Conservatives to support a future "where Canadians from every province and territory and First Nation can take part in and contribute to our shared prosperity."

The Liberal campaign was to hold a late-night rally in Calgary, before flying to Vancouver for a day full of campaign stops — but no news conferences — in B.C.

This report by The Canadian Press was originally published on Oct. 19, 2019.

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