I remember watching the news early one morning as I was preparing to head to work. It was September 2017, and Justin Trudeau was at the United Nations. He was speaking at length about his government's relationship with Indigenous people.
He talked about the mistakes of the past, about “the legacy of colonialism” and “the paternalistic Indian Act.” He made some strong statements, such as “No relationship is more important to this government than that with Indigenous people.” These were not mere words, he said, actions would follow. “We are ready to invest in [Indigenous communities], you just need to tell us how you need it, where you are going to spend it and how we can best help.” He suggested that change was well underway, and that Indigenous people could expect a “true future in partnership.”
His presentation left me feeling used and nauseated. My people's struggles had become a platform for his cause at the UN.
I feel honoured to have worked for the Indigenous population for over 20 years, creating programs aimed at strengthening and empowering people. I had struggled in my youth, but found a way to navigate the system. Now I try to clear a path for those who are also struggling. So where do Justin’s declarations fit in?
A (non-Indigenous) friend of mine approached me after seeing the prime minister’s speech at the UN. She believed if I wrote him, requesting support for a transitional housing project, run through the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal where I am the director, that would help urban Indigenous people get off the street, that he would help. I had little confidence. But my friend was adamant and spent considerable time trying to convince me.
It took many months for me to consider reaching out to the prime minister. My birth mother was forced to attend a Residential School and, consequently, I was part of the Sixties Scoop. My family, and many others, have suffered generations of colonialism. But in April 2018, I finally decided to write to Trudeau. I recruited a friend of mine, a professional writer, to help. I needed the letter of request to be strong, engaging and powerful. The final version was a thing of beauty. (Editors' note: We have included, below, the full 2018 letter to Justin Trudeau.)
The next step was to hold a press conference, on the day the letter was delivered. I was lucky to have many media outlets arrive and cover the story. For good measure, I also sent it to Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs minister, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister. I thought I had all angles covered.
There was much excitement from others, who truly believed that the letter would be answered positively.
And so I waited for a response. Any response. I still haven’t received any kind of reply. Not even a smoke signal. Silence times three....
It has been said that Justin Trudeau has the “Indigenous vote.” Prior to his election, he promised an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. I believe many Indigenous people voted for him because of it. The request for an inquiry has been ongoing since the Native Women’s Association of Canada began in 2010 to publish research showing the alarming statistics of MMIW with the Sisters in Spirit awareness campaign. Amnesty International followed suit with a report in 2013. The inquiry had been a long time coming. We waited to see if and when Trudeau would apply the 231 Calls to Justice, as outlined in the MMIW final report. Still waiting.
Another Trudeau campaign promise was to actualize the 94 Calls to Action put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Upon hearing this declaration, I thought to myself, “That’s a tall order. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Promise that you are going to implement half.” The government has a legacy of broken promises and treaties. Currently, only 10 recommendations have been acted on. We are still waiting.
I was very proud when Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, became the attorney general. She became a role model for Indigenous youth, and she took her role seriously and behaved with integrity. How she was pressured, mistreated and discarded by the prime minister will not be forgotten.
In July Trudeau shared with a group in Victoria, B.C., his views on reconciliation. “We have to be patient,” he said. “We have to be present. We have to be unconditional in our support in a way a parent needs to be unconditional in their love — not that there is a parent-child dynamic here.”
Patience is indeed important. However, it is Indigenous people who have been patient with government.
I have noticed a resurgence of Indigenous pride throughout the country, which has manifested in advocacy, arts, culture and language. This encourages me and gives me hope.
I continue to hope that the government will honour its agreements, treaties and promises. But in the meantime, Indigenous people will move forward with our own initiatives, creating solutions that are lasting to our communities. Indigenous people will continue to work to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and create a better future.
I will continue to look to the government, with perseverance and determination. But we are still waiting.
Nakuset's 2018 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
April 27, 2018
The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
In your speech to the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2017, you spoke of seeking reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities. In the spirit of the “true future in partnership” that you called for, I am writing to you with a proposal.
My name is Nakuset. I am the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, and I have been recipient of the Montreal Council of Women’s Woman of the Year award 2014, speaker at TEDxMontrealWomen on “Wīcihtāsowin – Building Bridges to Understanding,” and presenter at the Montreal edition of Community Culture Exchange’s CKX City Series. Additionally, I am the initiator of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network (NETWORK), through which I have helped found the award-winning Cabot Square Project, the Iskweu Project on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and many other endeavours.
My personal mission for years has been to improve the lives of urban Aboriginal people, and this places me in a position to work in partnership with you to build a better future for Indigenous peoples and for Canada as a whole.
In your statement to the United Nations, you said, “No relationship is more important to this government than that with Indigenous people.” In the spirit of the cultivating the strength and health of that relationship, I am writing to offer you the opportunity to make a significant, lasting change in the lives of Montreal’s community of urban Aboriginal women and children.
You declared at the United Nations, “We are ready to invest in [Indigenous communities], you just need to tell us how you need it, where you are going to spend it and how we can best help.” My team at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and I have been working to assess the needs of the women and girls in our community who come to us in periods of crisis for temporary shelter and to begin the process of rebuilding their lives. Our shelter has been in operation since 1987, providing a combination of traditional healing techniques and contemporary therapeutic approaches to confronting intergenerational trauma and the devastating legacy of Indian Residential Schools.
My team and I have done our utmost over the past 30 years to implement an array of projects and initiates to serve our community women and girls. These have included:
- The Iskweu Project, mentioned above, which is aimed to reduce and ultimately eradicate the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (trans, two-spirit) in Quebec and eventually all of Canada.
- The Cabot Square Project, a municipally sponsored co-habitation initiative supporting at-risk homeless Indigenous people through a variety of cultural and community outreach events.
- A collaboration agreement with the Service de police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM) to implement new procedures for dealing with Montreal’s urban Indigenous communities and to address systemic issues affecting relations between police and Indigenous people.
- A collaboration agreement with English Department for Youth Protection of the West of Montreal, implementing the first Call to Action recommendation from the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- A transitional housing project specifically designed to allow Indigenous women and their children to become autonomous.
You are the first Prime Minister in Canadian history to acknowledge so bluntly that this country was built upon a devastating “legacy of colonialism,” which was administered by what you called the “paternalistic Indian Act.” I believe you when you express your commitment to make a lasting change leading to reconciliation in this country between the Canadian Government and the Indigenous peoples of Canada. You have indicated your desire to fund projects that will establish the foundations for reversing the effects of Indian Residential Schools. We have been developing these projects for years, and our need for funding is critical. Thus, I would like to ask you to help fund our transitional housing project.
This housing project is vital to Montreal’s unique demographics. Our city has the highest proportion of first-generation urban Indigenous peoples, and our urban Indigenous population is also the country’s fastest growing. A large proportion of our Indigenous population comes from Inuit communities, and in Montreal Inuit are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, violence, and social exclusion. The shelter is a short-term solution for homelessness, the urgent need for supported second-stage housing that focuses on and prioritizes Indigenous clients is obvious and crucial.
We are ready to move forward on this project—a full proposal with a detailed budget is attached—that will provide the Montreal area’s first-ever second-stage housing exclusively for Indigenous women and their children moving from our shelter into longer-term living situations supported by our programming team. We have been planning this project for ten years, have selected a choice location, and begun working in collaboration with an organization that helps us with zoning and building plans. The location we have selected will support 30 units, from studio apartments to five-room family apartments. Residents will be supported by an array of our shelter’s services, including but not limited to:
- Youth protection advocate
- Addictions counsellor
- Art therapist
- Outreach professionals
In the spirit of partnership and reconciliation, we request funding for the amount of $6,750 964 to make this second-stage housing project possible and begin serving the next seven generations of Indigenous people in the Montreal area.
Prime Minster Trudeau, with your immediate support for our second-stage housing, you will be able to return to the UN General Assembly next year to report on the concrete progress your government has made toward building lasting structures of reconciliation.
It is with great anticipation that I look forward to defining our partnership and our mutually beneficial relationship.
In the spirit of healing,