It’s still in the mandate letters that Justin Trudeau has been giving to cabinet ministers since he was elected in 2015: “There remains no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.”
Substitute the word “impossible” for “important” and that sentence adequately sums up where that relationship appears to stand today. Trudeau is not the first Canadian prime minister to be met with massive roadblocks — literal and figurative — in his relations with Indigenous people, but he is the most heavily invested.
Sometime in the distant future, when he’s reflecting on his legacy, Trudeau will no doubt reflect on whether the investment was worth it.
This very week, though, with escalating Indigenous protests and a new class-action lawsuit launched on Wednesday by the Assembly of First Nations, has provided a vivid illustration of how mere political good will has been insufficient in the immediate term. So too, more worryingly, is the rule of law.
Protests, like strikes, are meant to be disruptive and inconvenient, even to innocent bystanders. People get that.
The countrywide outbreak of Indigenous protests in support of Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents in B.C., however, is stretching the limits — not just of patience and good will, but of the law as well. This is a moment, no question, that places the best of Canadian-Indigenous intentions on a collision course with raw reality.
The most striking statements against the protests have come from some of the voices most inclined toward reconciliation, certainly at the political level. They are cloaking their words in respect, but with an unmistakable edge of frustration not far beneath.
“Peaceful demonstration is fundamental to our success as a democracy,” B.C. Premier John Horgan declared on Wednesday, a day after protests put his speech from the throne in turmoil at the provincial legislature. “But to have a group of people say to others, ‘You are illegitimate, you are not allowed in here, you are somehow a sellout to the value of Canadians,’ is just plain wrong.”
Monitoring the escalating chaos from his travels in Africa, Trudeau said, “We recognize the important democratic right — and will always defend it — of peaceful protest But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.”
Perhaps the most searing appeal came from within the Tyendinaga community near Belleville, where the protests have stopped train traffic for nearly a week now.
“I’m never in favour of First Nations being forced to do anything, whether it be historically or ordered by white court or police,” Tyendinaga Mohawk police Chief Jason Brant said Wednesday morning, reading from carefully prepared remarks.
But, Bryant said, “the point has been made tenfold.”
He implored his fellow community members to go home, for the sake of friends and neighbours suffering because of these protests.
“There have been a few rounds of layoffs, that I am aware of, because of the stoppage,” Bryant said.
“I understand that the fat cats of CN are losing millions and millions. It’s now filtered down the working people; people living paycheque to paycheque are now being affected.”
The mention of “fat cats,” whether Bryant intended it or not, cast the disruptions in a wider light — not just of Canadian-Indigenous relations, but of class conflict, too. That’s a very familiar theme in contemporary politics, where all federal parties regularly compete over who hates rich people the most.
This is where Trudeau’s “most important relationship” gets complicated, maybe hopelessly so. It is not just about historic reconciliation. It’s also about economic circumstances, resource development versus the environment, and the populism arising from economic inequality — some of the most vexing, conflict-laden issues facing the federal government. Throw in contempt for the law and it’s easy to see why what looked important in 2015 can look impossible in 2020.
Prime ministerial intentions only become a reality with the backing of the Canadian public.
Four years ago, Trudeau was applauded for putting so much on the line when it came to fixing a notoriously difficult-to-fix file for every government since Confederation.
Would he be similarly applauded today, with the costs rising and the payout highly in doubt?
The ever-more-pressing question is not whether Trudeau will rethink his investment in his most important relationship in future, but whether events this week are making Canadians reconsider it, too — right now.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with the Toronto Star.