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Canada 2016: A Roller Coaster Ride of a Year for Indigenous Peoples

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had hits and misses in resetting the relationship between Canada and First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
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Canada in 2016 was rife with promise in the wake of the October 2015 election that had swept Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party to power astride pledges to reset the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the federal government. As the year wore on and reality intruded, that honeymoon began to end. Here is a recap of the major stories that unfolded as this played out, and as other events crept in.


Before heading to Washington, D.C., with wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to visit President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, the Prime Minister met with indigenous leaders in Canada and was given honorary Tsuut’ina Nation membership, which came with a headdress and the name Gumistiyi, “The One Who Keeps Trying.”

Justice Murray Sinclair, who served as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission inquiry into residential schools, opened up on the Senate floor about his openly gay daughter in a tribute to victims of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Justice Murray Sinclair

Returning home, Trudeau earned accolades from indigenous leaders by earmarking an unprecedented $8.4 billion in the federal budget for Native communities and causes. He also appointed Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to the Senate.


Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Carolyn Bennett opened the 15th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by announcing that the country would incorporate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into federal law. A standing ovation greeted the news on the UN floor, and Indigenous Peoples in Canada welcomed the announcement, but their optimism was guarded.


Indigenous leaders hailed as precedent-setting the formal apology by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to Indigenous Peoples for the residential school era, a first for a province, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that a year earlier had called the program “cultural genocide.” Wynne also committed $250 million to programs designed to help First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples rebuild.


A major human rights victory was won for children when the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government has racially discriminated against 163,000 First Nations children on reserve by giving them significantly less funding for crucial welfare services than the rest of the population. During the nine-year battle to get the case heard, social worker Cindy Blackstock endured government surveillance under the administration of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Another ruling was issued a couple of months later, though, when the tribunal deemed the pace of change too slow and ordered Trudeau’s government to step it up. The issue was underscored when about a dozen children had to be evacuated from Kashechewan First Nation in remote northern Ontario because of skin rashes and sores.


Marches were held across Canada to memorialize the victims and comfort the families of the 1,200 or more indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing, their cases unsolved. Meanwhile, the data appeared to give conflicting reports as to the scope and roots of the problem. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) admitted that the problem was “way bigger than 1,200,” which until now has been the commonly accepted statistic. Indigenous leaders across Canada welcomed the August 3 announcement naming the five panelists, though some expressed reservations, calling the mandate “too vague.” And up north, there was concern that the panel did not include any Inuit people. The inquiry officially began on September 1.

Left to right: Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson, the members of the commission conducting a national inquiry into the high rates of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.

Left to right: Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson, the members of the commission conducting a national inquiry into the high rates of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.


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Early on, the nine allied tribes of Lax Kw’alaams as well as other hereditary and elected chiefs from neighboring nations signed the Lelu Island Declaration, sending a clear message to government and industry that the Skeena watershed would not allow the $11 billion Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project to be built. The tribes decreed that First Nations have not only rights, but also responsibilities, when it comes to harvesting from and sustaining the environment. Russian scientists told First Nations unequivocally that putting a liquefied natural gas facility on Lelu Island would kill the Skeena River salmon stocks, having seen it happen on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia. Trudeau went on to approve the massive Pacific Northwest LNG project (PNW LNG) anyway, and it was met by several legal challenges mounted by First Nations and environmental groups.


Trudeau pressed forward with the controversial Site C dam project even after nearly 300 academics warned of ecological disaster if the plan to flood the Peace Valley in northern British Columbia moved forward. Despite growing protests, construction on the $8.8 billion project commenced. The academics and scientists wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warning that the project is ill-advised both for environmental and treaty reasons. First Nations are calling the project and other large-scale industrial developments something of a litmus test on whether Trudeau truly means to rebuild relations with Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Activist Helen Knott (Dane Zaa and Nehiyawak from Northern British Columbia) voiced her objection in verse, walking the prairies of the fertile Peace River valley as she deftly called out the Prime Minister through spoken-word poetry for allegedly reneging on promises and commitments made to Indigenous Peoples in his last federal election campaign. Amnesty International joined First Nations in condemning the Canadian government’s approval of two key permits that will allow the controversial Site C dam to go forward, calling for an immediate halt to construction.

The Site C dam project, according to an artist's rendering.

The Site C dam project, according to an artist's rendering.


In what looked like a consultation win, Enbridge Inc., the company that had been pushing to build the Northern Gateway oil pipeline through pristine British Columbia forest occupied by First Nations, lost its permits after a court ruled they had not properly consulted with Indigenous Peoples. A few days later the Canadian government suspended all reviews pertaining to the 730-mile-long pipeline, and Trudeau declared that the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for such a conduit. Trudeau went on to reject Northern Gateway Pipeline, but he approved its Line 3 (L3RP) replacement project from Alberta to Wisconsin, as well as the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

More than 5,000 people protested in Vancouver on November 19 against a Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion that would triple capacity.

More than 5,000 people protested in Vancouver on November 19 against a Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion that would triple capacity.

Trudeau’s pipeline decisions reverberated south of the 49th Parallel, to Washington State, where several Coast Salish nations challenged—in courtrooms and in boardrooms—the Canada National Energy Board’s (NEB) recommendation that the federal government approve the threefold-capacity expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Northwest tribes, like their First Nation counterparts, were concerned about increased shipping traffic and the potential for spills in general.


Underscoring the concerns of pipeline opponents, a pipeline breach that dumped up to 66,000 gallons of Alberta oil sands crude into the North Saskatchewan River system had the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) calling for “full First Nation participation and representation during the emergency response.” And the Heilsuk Nation battled a massive diesel spill from a tugboat that ran aground near Bella Bella.


All this conflict led to some high tensions, and several indigenous leaders considered walking out on the first day of a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations. But Trudeau reassured indigenous leaders of his commitment to rebuild nation-to-nation relationships and unveiled the new Indigenous Language Act to ensure the preservation and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages across Canada. He also met with leaders from all three aboriginal groups in December, saying he was determined to reset the relationship.


Métis and other non-status Indians in Canada were officially recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as deserving of the same federal benefits accorded to First Nations and Inuit peoples. The case had hinged on whether it was the federal government or the provincial government that had jurisdiction over bringing them up to par with Indigenous Peoples living on reserves or holding land claims.


First Nations members and communities in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta, were among those under siege in a massive wildfire that caused the evacuation of 88,000 people—the entire population of this city that is a hub for production in the notorious oil sands region. Surrounding communities were evacuated as well, including Fort McMurray First Nation No. 468, with 277 residents. First Nation communities across the province welcomed evacuees from Fort McMurray as they fled their decimated town, even as they reached out to their own members to make sure they were accounted for.