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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Speech to the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Speech to the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly


Good afternoon.

Thank you for your kind welcome.

Before I begin, I’d like to recognize the Algonquin Nation, on whose traditional territory we are gathering.  We acknowledge them as the past, present and future caretakers of this land.

Elders, youth, veterans, National Chief Bellegarde, members of the AFN executive and Chiefs-in-Assembly: thank you for giving me the chance to be here with you today.        

It was back in January of 2013 that I watched – with deep respect and admiration – a group of young Cree leave their remote and northern Quebec community of Whapmagoostui and begin a 1600-kilometre trek through frigid weather.

Like so many Canadians, I watched them make their way by snowshoe, and then by foot, during that two-month journey to Ottawa.

Along the way, their numbers had grown from seven to over 400 on that morning in March when they walked into this town to the sound of traditional drums. We all know the Journey of the Nishiyuu: the Journey of the People.

I was one of many to meet them upon their arrival.  The “Original Seven”: David, Stanley, Travis, Johnny, Raymond, Geordie, and Isaac.

The tenacity, the determination and boldness of spirit that fuelled these youth inspired a nation, and brought the concerns of their community to the forefront.

Today, we gather in the capital of this nation, as many nations. 

We gather here in this moment to reflect on the first year of the journey to build a new relationship, one based on recognition and respect.

The Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples of Canada have begun our own new walk together.  And together we’ve taken the first steps in what we all know is going to be a multi-generational journey.

In this spirit, no one here fools him- or herself that the path our country overwhelmingly agreed to take will always be a gentle one, or an easy one. We’ve already felt some headwinds. And there will be more.

I do not take my call for a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples lightly.

I wake up every morning encouraged that we are finally doing this together, and each morning I wake up in anticipation of what new places we’ll find together.

And each morning I wake up with fresh resolve that we will keep pushing forward, like the Nishiyuu Walkers, until we reach our destination.

But unlike the Nishiyuu Walkers, who were happy to return home to their community and to the love of their families, we know that the past we are leaving behind us is not a good or happy place.

For all of us gathered here who are on our trek together, there is no giving up and turning around and heading back to the place where we all just last year so strongly agreed to move away from.

Not only can’t we go back there again: none of us wants to.

Jody Wilson-Raybould is Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General.  

Not only is she the right person – Indigenous or otherwise – for this central role, she is our government’s loud and clear message to our country that the laws of this land that were, and in many ways still are, used to control and constrain Indigenous Peoples are now the particular responsibility of a First Nations person.  An Indigenous woman.

She, along with her Cabinet colleagues, will now lead a joint effort with Indigenous Peoples, aimed at de-colonializing Canada’s laws and policies that for so long have held back, rather than recognized, Indigenous rights.

My government supports the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work the Commission has done is some of the most important work ever in this country.  Each of the 94 needs to be implemented.

Indeed, as the one-year anniversary approaches, I am pleased to confirm that progress is underway on 36 of the 45 calls to action that are under solely federal purview.

We all know that addressing them thoroughly and with due diligence will take time.  I understand that many of you in this room are impatient. I know many of the people you serve are impatient. I am impatient too. But I’m encouraged by the meaningful progress we’ve already made. 

In May, Minister Bennett went to the UN to make clear our government’s unqualified support for the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  We remain committed to its adoption and implementation in full partnership and in consultation with Indigenous Peoples.

I have asked Minister Wilson-Raybould to lead the work collectively with her Cabinet colleagues and First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit Peoples to ensure that this gets done.

Since forming government, we have lifted 14 long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, and we’re on track to have nearly half of remaining advisories eliminated within three years. We will lift all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities within our original five-year deadline.

As a teacher, I’m especially excited that this year, almost 2000 students started the school year in six brand-new schools. There are now 31 new schools under construction on reserve. Another 27 are being designed, and a further 72 are in feasibility studies.

I’m also excited that later this month, Canada’s first First Nations School Board Agreement in Manitoba is expected to be signed.  I know there are active discussions in other provinces to do the same.  

And as we all know, a federal government-mandated independent inquiry has been launched into the national horror and continuing trauma of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. And let me tell you one thing: to put it bluntly, this issue has always been and will always be on my radar.

We need to do more. But we have thousands of kids in new schools, we have 14 communities with clean water that didn’t have it before and have begun to get justice for sisters and daughters across the country. All in our first year.

Canadians now understand that, as Senator Murray Sinclair stated, reconciliation in this country isn’t just an Indigenous issue and problem – it is a Canadian issue and problem that we all need to address in real and concrete ways.

My government and the Assembly of First Nations have worked together to make early progress – not only against an important list of recommendations, but also in a new spirit of cooperation that will bring us closer to the goal of true reconciliation.

We must together show Canadians that we are working in unison to correct the historical wrongs and continuing intergenerational trauma that affects so many Indigenous Peoples.

You don’t need me to tell you how much more work still needs to be done.  It is a lived experience for many of you.  And our government remains committed to making meaningful and timely progress on the issues that matter most to you and your communities.

That includes working hard to close the persistent gaps that exist between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples when it comes to employment opportunities, income, and housing.

It includes building the infrastructure your communities need to be safe, healthy places to live.

It includes doing more to address the unique needs of Indigenous children and youth, whose desperation is matched by a desire to succeed – something that is, sadly, too often ignored until it is too late.

We know all too well how residential schools and other decisions by governments were used as a deliberate tool to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures. If we are to truly advance reconciliation, we must undo the lasting damage that resulted.

So today, I commit to you that our government will enact an Indigenous Languages Act, co-developed with Indigenous Peoples, with the goal of ensuring the preservation, protection, and revitalization of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit languages in this country.

All of us gathered in this room today must never allow Canadians, including Indigenous Peoples, to think or believe that reconciliation can’t or won’t work.

It is of the greatest imperative that all of us here never allow Canadians the chance to fear that due to a lack of joint leadership, of a true nation-to-nation dialogue and relationship, we aren’t able to achieve this most vital of goals.

Yes, we have a long way to go, but let’s not forget that we’ve also come a long way already. We must show Canada that we are partners.

This past summer, The Tragically Hip showed a whole nation how we can come together in a powerful and positive way. I heard Gord Downie that night in Kingston. And with your honouring him today, I know you heard him, too.

Indeed, 12 million Canadians heard him that night. Gord, in simple and elegant words, used that moment to advocate and advance by many years the reconciliation dialogue in our country.

Gord embodies all Canadians’ desire for reconciliation.

Just as your honouring him today is an act of reconciliation. The same way the young Cree Nishiyuu walker, David Kawapit, summoned his friends to take a leap of faith with him in a long walk of reconciliation, it is these individual acts that will help get our country where it needs and deserves to be.

I recently heard my friend Joseph Boyden speak to reconciliation and why it is so necessary.

He asked Canadians to understand the damage residential schools caused to Indigenous Peoples by comparing it to a great tsunami in slow motion advancing over the course of 140 years, destroying homes, splintering families, drowning children.

This tsunami in slow motion left no home untouched. But the tsunami has reached its high water mark and it now recedes.

And the artists are the ones asked to be the beachcombers wandering the shoreline, sifting through the debris and beginning to take the pieces they find to build something new in the wake of the destruction.

What they re-build won’t be the same as what it was before. But it can be just as strong and as beautiful if we all come together to create it.

It’s up to all of us to rebuild a new relationship.  All Canadians: teachers and students and construction workers and lawyers and police officers and parents. And especially those of us gathered in this room.

All of us, including the Chiefs in this room, need to challenge ourselves on our approach to governance. We need to constantly be ensuring that all voices in the community are heard, and served by their leadership. We can’t forget what we are all here to do. To serve our communities.

Decades ago now, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples described many of the concerns I hear today from‎ Indigenous youth. The commission told us how youth are wary of government. Federal government certainly, but also Indigenous government. That their concerns are not taken seriously, that their voices are not heard.

The advice of the Royal Commission was right then, and it's right today - that's why we all should support a vision of governance in communities that work for, respond to, and is inclusive of Indigenous youth. This is something we can and must do together.

In the spirit of honouring our youth as well who begin the journey and don’t ever quit, let’s agree that we move forward to build our visions of our country that will propel us into the next centuries.

I have seen firsthand the struggles of so many of our northern and remote communities, and every opportunity has cemented my resolve and deepened my understanding of reconciliation.  It made me see very clearly what reconciliation means.

It means that if you are a child living on reserve, you should be able to turn on the tap and have clean water come out.  Water that you can drink, and bathe in, without fear.

It means that if you are a parent, when you say goodnight to your child you know that your child will be alive and well the next morning when you awake.

It means that if you are an Indigenous woman, you should not fear violence perpetrated against you when you walk down the street.

These are just a few examples of things most Canadians take for granted. Things I know that everyone gathered here wants for their communities. My government is acting on these issues.

Another fundamental issue is education.  Simply put, we need to do a better job of improving education and educational outcomes for Indigenous students, the fastest-growing demographic in schools across the country.

Education both in the classroom, and out of it. First Nations-led, First Nations- governed, culturally appropriate and sensitive education takes many forms, and is found in many different settings: in the classroom, in the home, and on the land.

I believe that reconciliation will have firmly taken root in this country when the rest of Canada can look at the schools of First Nations communities as the shining light for a full and well-rounded education in all its many forms.  When First Nations- governed schools are the envy of others.

Indigenous control of Indigenous education within a new nation-to-nation relationship, is a means to an end in ensuring culturally appropriate and quality education for Indigenous students. 

The desire is there to make this a reality. And so is the energy, and the willpower. Let’s all agree tonight to work together on a nation-to-nation level to make this an achievable goal, moving forward.

To nuture a nation-to-nation relationship, there has to be trust. Mutual trust.

I refuse to engage in or to ever use policies that aim to ignore, and then belittle, then attack, and finally blame the recipients of that bad policy.

If we are to move forward in a nation-to-nation relationship, we have to try new things.  To take risks, even.  Some of what we try will work, some of it won’t.  Some of it will work for some nations, but not others. But we can’t be afraid to try.  Part of rebuilding trust includes being willing to try, together.

Reconciliation does not mean that we, or even all members within this proud assembly, will agree on everything.

I know that there are people in this room who deeply disagree with our position to move ahead with the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I know there are people here who agree with it. I also know that there are people who deeply disagree with our position not to move forward with the Northern Gateway pipeline, just as there are those who agree with it.

The test of our relationship is not whether we’ll always agree. The test of our relationship is whether we can still move forward, together.

Working together also means sharing what we know and learning from each other.  Whether that’s traditional knowledge or statistical data, if we are to collectively work on helping communities heal and succeed, this is vital. All of us need hard data in order to make decisions both small and large.

Those of us gathered in this room have the historic opportunity to define, together, what this relationship based on recognition will look like for generations to come. 

Let’s not allow others to define our relationship for us or squander this extraordinary opportunity out of fear, mistrust or doubt.

Let’s never give others the chance to think that we can’t make this work, or don’t care to.

Instead, let’s look at the road ahead and take each step together with resolve.  We’re in the early days of this journey. 

I know that we will disagree at times – on which path to take, or at what pace.  Some of us might want to push on, others will need to rest. 

The important thing is that we keep moving forward, and that we keep moving forward together.

Because our reward at the end is not a destination.  It’s a new and stronger and better Canada.

I did not take lightly what I said to each minister when I asked them to be in my Cabinet: no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.

It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, one that is based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.

We are truly on a Journey of the Nishiyuu, a Journey of the People.

On our journey we need to speak openly and honestly – bluntly, if we have to –just as we need to listen to the wisdom of our own elders.

And we must never forget the passion and energy of our youth.

All of them are watching us.

All of Canada is listening to us.

Let’s do right – in memory of those who have come before us, and in sacred respect for generations to follow.   

Miigwetch. Kinanaskomitin.

Mashi cho. Gilakas'la. Tshinashkumitinau. Thank you. Merci.