BY: ROB HOFFMAN
Last month, Prime Minister Trudeau sat down with Nikki Fraser, the Youth Representative of B.C.’s Native Women’s Association (BCNWA) to discuss the pressing issue of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Fraser, who personally lost her aunt and cousin who both went missing in the Kamloops area, tried to find the appropriate words to address the loss, in which she is far from alone. According to The Native Women’s Association of Canada, using statistics from 2010, there are nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. Trudeau, in the interview released by CBC, appears to have an equally difficult time talking on the matter, but for very different reasons than Fraser.
Trudeau navigates his way through his action plan, prefacing with a nervous roundabout speech on rebuilding relationships between the government and indigenous communities, before making a firm conclusion: “We need investments in infrastructure and education…” The problem with this claim, according to economist Rob Gillezeau, is how the Liberal government plans to deliver with a $1.7 billion shortage in their funding plan for First Nations youth.
According to the Globe and Mail, the fiscal discrepancy is the result of the Conservative government’s furtive removal of funds from the national budget. Though the article paints the Liberals as victims of the Conservative government’s sneaky budgetary shuffle, as Gillezeau points out in Maclean’s, this displacement of funds had been addressed last election season by NDP’s Charlie Angus. Though the Liberals previously responded to this claim with truculent denial and counter-accusations, Trudeau must now explain his way out of the staggering error. Though the mistake may cost Trudeau the trust of First Nations communities, the Prime Minister’s lauded progressive agenda, image and brilliant PR team could evade public scrutiny if indigenous issues continue to fall on deaf ears.
“Governments don’t create change, they respond to change.” Says Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Blackstock traces her frustration with the painfully sluggish progress of First Nations rights back to her childhood. In the ’60s, Blackstock recalls watching the American civil rights movement play out on her black-and-white television, making waves in the national consciousness when back in Canada, “racism was perfectly normal. It was worse than normal—it was benevolent.” She tells me. More than 50 years later, The Black Lives Matter movement and unceasing systematic racism persisting in the U.S. serves to remind us of the dreadfully slow pace of progress. In Canada, the issues are buried beneath generations of national apathy. As Scott Gilmore reminded us in a Maclean’s article last year, “By almost every measurable indicator, Canada’s Aboriginal population suffers a worse fate and more hardship than the African-American population in the U.S.”
In 2008, 13-year-old Shannen Koostachin stood up against the government’s lack of funding for First Nations education, frustrated with the lack of opportunity afforded by her school’s deplorable status in Attawapiskat, Ontario. In Canada’s underfunded reservation schools, it isn’t uncommon to see mice scampering across the classrooms for cafeteria food, mould caked into the walls, outdated textbooks and empty bookshelves. Despite being revered as “the Rosa Parks of this generation,” Koostachin’s story—representing the experience shared by countless First Nations peoples in Canada—is still lost on most Canadians nearly a decade later. This lack of national consciousness and normalization of underfunding for First Nations communities allows disgraceful fiscal policy—including the Liberal government’s $1.7 billion slip up—to squeak by largely unchallenged.
It’s seducing to accept Prime Minister Trudeau’s diverse cabinet and teary-eyed public apology to First Nations as evidence of soaring progress. However the prospect of the Liberals recovering from their fiscal error seems grim, jeopardizing the desperately needed $2.6 billion promise to First Nations. Should the money fall through, the onus may fall on Trudeau or the Department of Finance, but government is transactional. It is the responsibility of Canadians to speak up against systematic racism, inequity, and human-rights violations that have long been ignored and normalized, lest we offer ourselves as bystanders.