OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went on the world stage Thursday to lay out Canada’s efforts to address a domestic “shame” — the treatment of Indigenous peoples.
The prime minister used his address at the UN General Assembly to talk almost solely about the challenges confronting Canada’s Indigenous population and his government’s efforts at change and reconciliation.
He said Canada is a country “that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first.”
He highlighted the residential school system that separated Indigenous children from their parents and culture, and the forced relocation of Inuit and First Nations communities.
He traced the problems to what he called a “legacy of colonialism” and a “paternalistic Indian Act.”
“For Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse,” he said.
And today, he said, Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to endure foul water, poor education, bad housing and poor job prospects.
“The good news is that Canadians get it. They see the inequities. They’re fed up with the excuses. And that impatience gives us a rare and precious opportunity to act,” he told the assembly.
Trudeau said Canada is making progress on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which he said his government embraces “without qualification.”
He said that includes work to end boil water advisories, build homes, curb violence against women and girls, and “dismantling the old colonial bureaucratic government structures.”
The speech stood in contrast to his UN speech last year — his first as prime minister — when he talked about “re-engaging” in global affairs and reminded delegates about his government’s promise to expand Canada’s presence in UN peace operations.
This year, Trudeau said little about Canada’s role in global affairs and was silent about his government’s drawn-out decision on a peace mission, which has been more than a year in the making.
Beyond a nod of concern for victims of the Mexico earthquake and Caribbean hurricanes, he was also conspicuously silent on current events playing out around the globe and how Canada might help, including escalating tensions in North Korea and violence in Burma.
There were short references to trade, tax reforms and Canada’s support for global efforts to curb climate change, a pointed reference given Washington’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord.
“There is no country on the planet that can walk away from the challenge and reality of climate change,” Trudeau said to applause.
Academic Stephanie Carvin said later that she was “baffled” by the speech and its domestic focus, especially given Canada’s campaign to win a seat on the UN Security Council.
“I don’t doubt for a second that Indigenous reconciliation is fundamentally a priority for Canadians, but I don’t understand why this particular speech was given at the United Nations,” said Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“It was a very haphazard speech.
“In that sense, it was a missed opportunity. I think you could have taken those themes and tied it to larger global priorities, using Indigenous reconciliation as a model,” Carvin said.
On Parliament Hill, NDP MP Roméo Saganash said that despite Trudeau’s pledge of action, Indigenous communities continue to face chronic issues with housing, water, schooling and children’s services.
“It’s been more than 150 years that it persists in this way. Government after government, Conservative government after Liberal government . . . . They tell us the same things. And yet we’re always in the same place,” said Saganash, who was the first Indigenous MP elected in Quebec.
“It’s been so long, year after year, all the serious questions, the serious issues that we have in the communities have been so neglected for so long,” he said.
Trudeau later defended the focused theme of his UN speech, telling reporters that Canada can’t lecture other countries on their domestic problems without first owning up to its own record.
“I think it’s time we actually stood up and took responsibility for the terrible mistakes of the past and share it at the UN,” he said at a news conference.
“What we shared today is a Canadian vision that taking care of people — the most vulnerable, the most marginalized in our society — is an essential step towards a better world.”
He insisted that he has been engaged in world issues, saying that during his time at the UN he’s had discussions about the Rohingya in Burma, on North Korea, border issues and migration.
“This has been a very busy week for Canada to be engaged on a broad range of issues,” Trudeau said.
Asked about Canada’s long-awaited peace mission, Trudeau repeated his line that his government was doing its “due diligence.” He offered no timeline when an announcement could be expected.