Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

Justin Trudeau swept to power in November 2015 to the tune of the song, “Sunny Days,” a Canadian classic by the band Lighthouse that is an ode to smoking marijuana and sitting in the sun doing nothing.

And things stayed high for the hip, young Canadian prime minister as he took charge. One of the first things he did in office was legalize marijuana, and his support bumped up among youth and the Indigenous community, which saw the marijuana business booming in the legal and independent market on First Nations across Canada.

Now, however, Trudeau is headed for a snap election of his own making, called in hopes of winning a majority in Parliament as poll numbers showed the government scoring well among voters on pandemic stimulus checks but little else.

With the Sept. 20 election day approaching, however, the skies have turned stormy and Trudeau’s poll numbers have dropped, with the rival Conservative Party taking the lead in the polls soon after the election was called. A majority government of more than 170 seats in the Canadian parliament is no longer the goal; Trudeau is now in a fight for his job.

Much of the disappointment and anger against Trudeau and his governing Liberals is over the fact that the election didn’t need to be called at all just two years into his second 4-year term, with the pandemic continuing to drag on.

The pullout from Afghanistan has put his role as Canada’s Commander in Chief in the spotlight as military families and friends question the sacrifices and the losses over the past 20 years. Trudeau’s fresh, never-served face does not provide much empathy.

All summer, the real threat of climate change was seen and breathed over much of Canada as smoke from wildfires across the west and from south of the border filled the skies. The province of British Columbia is still battling wildfires and will be throughout the quick election cycle. Tropical storms continue to threaten the Atlantic provinces. 

It was not a time when people wanted to go to the polls, and apathy now is losing ground to anger.

But if this is the end of the line for Trudeau as Canadian prime minister, it could well be Indigenous people who make the final decision. He called it on Election Day in 2015.

“No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with First Nations, Metis Nation and Inuit Peoples,” he said at the time.

He confirmed the spiritual degree to which he valued the relationship at the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Ottawa on Dec. 8, 1015, when he vowed to implement recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed in 2008 as a condition of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

“The constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but a sacred obligation,” he told a cheering crowd at the assembly. “We will fully implement the calls-to-action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Now, however, his relationship with First Nations peoples is in tatters. Critics have accused him of mishandling interactions with the Indigenous attorney general and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Climate change is hitting home for many communities.

And international attention has focused on Canada as hundreds of bodies of Indigenous children have been found buried at former Indian residential school sites, many in unmarked graves, while the search continues for more.

He still has support, however, from a number of tribal leaders.

“We are still recovering from the regime of Stephen Harper (Conservative Party) and the damage that he has caused to funding to First Nations people,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee told Indian Country Today. “He was very disrespectful to First Nations leaders and it was very difficult to get work with his office and the bureaucracy.”

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MKO represents 10 First Nations in Northern Manitoba and on Aug. 31, 2021, passed two resolutions, one supporting the Liberal candidate and the other asking members to support the Liberals.

“Nothing is perfect,” Settee said. “But we would rather work with a government that is trying to meet us halfway.”

The Liberal Party did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Indian Country Today.

Political climate

The climate crisis for many Indigenous peoples is the existential threat that faces humanity and a challenge to Indigenous peoples as caretakers of Mother Earth.

Fires have burned through western Canada and northern Ontario, and smoke filled the sky over much of the country when the government was shut down and the election was called. Tropical storms and hurricanes have continued to cause more damage along the Atlantic coast, and the province of Newfoundland is currently preparing to be hit by Hurricane Larry.

In 2019, the Vuntut First Nation declared a climate emergency and the Inuit Tapirat Kanatami is asking the incoming government to “advance actions identified in the Inuit Climate Change Strategy, including supporting coordinated climate policy that improves Inuit quality of life.”

Yet the nation under Trudeau has continued to push fossil fuel projects that environmentalists and Indigenous peoples say are damaging the region.

A woman silhouetted holds a flag of the American Indian Movement during a protest against the Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, May 29, 2018. Canada's federal government said Tuesday it is buying the controversial pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast to ensure it gets built. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Canadian government nationalized the Trans Canada pipeline when the Liberal government purchased it in 2018 from Kinder-Morgan. The pipeline is built to provide a destination for Canada’s tar sands oil after the collapse of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Instead of going south to refineries in the United States, however, the Trans Canada pipeline will take the oil across the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the British Columbia coastline to fill tankers headed to China and elsewhere.

Minister of Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, appointed to the role by Trudeau, suggested last month that the Trans Canada pipeline was good for the environment as the country transitions away from fossil fuel extraction.

"Canada needs to ensure that in the context of that transition, it's extracting full value for its resources and using that money to push forward in terms of reducing emissions," Wilkinson said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company on Aug. 9, 2021.

Thousands of unmarked graves

The discovery of 215 bodies in unmarked graves beside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May brought the reality of Canada’s Indigenous genocide to the attention of the world. Since then, thousands more remains have been found and thousands more are expected to be found.

Canada operated more than 130 federal Indian residential schools with more than 150,000 Indigenous children attending between the 1870s and the mid-1990s. Today, residential schools are generally run by religious denominations.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a memorial at the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, that's in recognition of discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Canadian schools were modeled after the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the United States, and Indigenous children were often snatched from their families and shipped off to harsh conditions.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was implemented on Sept. 19, 2007, an agreement negotiated by the Canadian government, churches, survivors, the Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous organizations. The agreement provided former residential school students with financial compensation. The government also provided $125 million to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which ceased operation in 2014, and agreed to support an Indian residential crisis line to help people seeking support.

Lynne Groulx, chief executive of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said Indigenous reconciliation is an election issue important to all voters.

“It is definitely important to Canadian voters and has been shown in a number of polls,” she told Indian Country Today. “Particularly since the discovery of the remains of the children, there has been an outpouring of support from the Canadian population at large with a high degree of caring and empathy.”

The association as well as other Indigenous organizations are working to get Indigenous peoples registered and voting this election.

But what reconciliation means is undefined. The question of whether to raise the Canadian flags — which were lowered across the country to remember the children who died at Indian residential schools — has become a campaign talking point, with Conservative challenger Erin O’Toole promising to raise the flags back up if elected prime minister.

Early conflicts

Trudeau’s handling of other Indigenous issues has also tempered his support among First Nations people.

In appointing his cabinet, Trudeau named Member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould, Kwak’wala, as minister of justice and attorney general — the highest post ever held by an Indigenous person in the Canadian government. The relationship seemed to be one held in the highest regard, but eventually ended in conflict.

The dispute came after Quebec-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin was charged with fraud and corruption in overseas contracting, including allegations of bribing officials in Libya. As the case was set to go to trial, Liberal government officials began to push Wilson-Raybould to use her power as attorney general to move the case to remediation.

A member of Canada's Parliament, Jody Wilson-Raybould was tapped by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be minister of justice and attorney general. She eventually got at odds with Trudeau and ran for re-election in 2019 as an Independent. (Photo courtesy of Jody Wilson-Raybould)

Trudeau at first denied trying to influence the case, but details emerged that he had pressured Wilson-Raybould to approve the mediation.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion reported that Trudeau met with Wilson-Raybould on Sept. 17, 2018, at which time “she reiterated her decision to not intervene in the Director of Public Prosecutions' decision to not invite SNC-Lavalin to enter into a remediation agreement. She also expressed to Mr. Trudeau her concern of inappropriate attempts to interfere politically with the Attorney General in a criminal matter.”

The commissioner concluded that Trudeau used his position of authority over Wilson-Raybould to seek to influence, both directly and indirectly, her decision on whether she should overrule the prosecution’s decision not to invite SNC-Lavalin to enter into negotiations.

It would be hard to imagine a similar situation playing out in Washington, D.C., with such minimal political fallout. Wilson-Raybould, who retained her seat in Parliament while serving as minister, eventually was shuffled out of her powerful position in the Trudeau government in 2019. She then was kicked out of party and stripped of her rights to run as a Liberal.

She ran for re-election to Parliament as an Independent in 2019 and won, becoming the first woman to win as an Independent in Canadian history. She is not seeking re-election on the Sept. 20 ballot.

Trudeau’s handling of missing and murdered Indigenous women has also been questioned. The so-called Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, released June 5, 2019, called out the Liberal government for its lack of action.

“There has been very limited movement to implement recommendations from previous reports,” the report stated. “What little efforts have been made have focused more on reactive rather than preventative measures. This is a significant barrier to addressing the root causes of violence. Further, insufficient political will continues to be a roadblock across all initiatives.”

What’s ahead

For now, it appears Trudeau’s backing is waning among some Indigenous supporters.

As rumors of an early election call began to swirl, Wilson-Raybould took to Twitter and tweeted at the prime minister to slow down the march to election and face the challenges of finding 215 children’s bodies buried with more to be found.

“If you care enough to make things right, stop your selfish jockeying for an election — which no one really wants — and do what you promised in 2018. #215+,” she tweeted soon after the first bodies were discovered at Kamloops.

Mumilaq Qaqqaq, an Inuit member of Parliament who is a member of the opposition New Democratic Party, issued a scathing indictment of the Trudeau years in a farewell speech to her colleagues.

“During my time in this chamber, I have heard so many pretty words like reconciliation, and diversity and inclusion,” said Quaqqaq, who is not seeking re-election. “I have been called courageous, brave, and strong by people outside of my party. But let me be honest — brutally honest — nice words, with no action, hurt when they are uttered by those with power.”

Even after the snap election was called, the Liberals continued making moves that did not bolster their support in the Indigenous community. On Aug. 31, 2021, the Native Women's Association of Canada demanded the Indigenous Affairs minister explain the appointment of a non-Indigenous man as executive director of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Secretariat.

"Colonialism is clearly alive and well in this country," Groulx, the association’s chief executive, said in a letter to the minister.

The Canadian flags were lowered following the discovery of unmarked graves next to Indian residential schools in May 2021. Now the issue has entered Canadian politics: Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole saying he would raise the flag if elected prime minister in the Sept. 20, 2021 snap election. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau for Indian Country Today)

Still, for some Indigenous leaders, there is no election choice other than the Liberals. Soon after the snap election was called, at an event for New Democratic Party leader and prime minister-hopeful Jagmeet Singh, two First Nations Chiefs endorsed a rival candidate from the governing Liberals.

On Aug. 26, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs’ Grand Chief Arlen Dumas joined with Grand Chief Settee at a press conference to endorse Liberal party candidate Shirley Robinson, Cree, who is challenging the New Democratic Party incumbent Niki Ashton for a seat in Parliament representing the voting district of Churchill- Keewatinook.

The race is on for each vote and every seat in the House of Parliament, with a minority government for the Liberals the most likely outcome. In Canada, governing without a majority means sharing power with one or more of the opposition parties. One seat could be the difference between ruling the country and sharing the power.

With the race that close, the Indigenous vote hasn’t been so important in a Canadian election since First Nations got the right to vote in 1960.

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