Canada's new government

Liberals make missing and murdered Indigenous women a priority

Could it be the start of a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government?
Photo: Jen Castro

It has been nearly a month since the new Liberal government took office, and it's already bringing some notable changes for Indigenous peoples.

Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member

On social media, some victims’ families say they have already been contacted directly by MP Carolyn Bennett, now at the helm of the renamed ministry of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development.

While the Liberal party was in opposition, Bennett served as critic for Aboriginal Affairs and was often seen at meetings and gatherings of Indigenous people, including memorial marches for the missing and murdered.

That consultation has begun on a national inquiry so soon after the October 19th federal election signals for many a distinct change in how the federal government interacts with Indigenous peoples.

Prior to the swearing-in of the new government, there was even widespread speculation that Trudeau would appoint an Indigenous person to Indigenous Affairs, a move that would have been historic.

The swearing-in ceremony, held at Rideau Hall, had numerous nods to Indigenous peoples, including two young Inuit throat singers, First Nations drummers and dancers, as well as Métis jigging. There was also an acknowledgement that the ceremony was taking place in the territory of the Algonquin people.

Since the federal election, two Indigenous MPs have been appointed to cabinet and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has been renamed to Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

For many, these mark a good start in the right direction — and a distinct change in tone from the defeated Conservative government.

Indigenous cabinet members

Recently, Trudeau delivered 30 ministerial mandate letters to his new cabinet. These letters outline the government's commitment and provide a framework for each minister.

"Today we are demonstrating that real change in government is possible," said Prime Minister Trudeau in a statement on the government's website. "For the first time in our country's history, we are making these letters public, so Canadians can hold us accountable to deliver on our commitments. We are ushering in a new era of openness and transparency in Canada."

Among the cabinet ministers receiving these marching orders are two high-profile Indigenous MPs.

Jody Wilson-Raybould has been named minister of justice and attorney general. Wilson is a longtime First Nation leader who sat as regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in B.C. and is a former crown prosecutor.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed Wilson-Raybould's appointment, calling it a "powerful acknowledgement of First Nations peoples."

Hunter Tootoo has been named minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian coast guard. Tootoo, who defeated Conservative Leona Aglukkaq in the Nunavut riding, also becomes the second Inuk cabinet minister in Canadian history.

"Having an Inuk in this foundational portfolio is an excellent step for Canada," said Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. "I hope to build collaboratively with him to ensure a strong, national Inuit voice so that our communities can thrive."

Indigenous affairs post

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada now has MP Carolyn Bennett at the helm. While the Liberal party was in opposition, Bennett served as Aboriginal affairs critic and was often seen at gatherings of Indigenous people.

Prior to the swearing-in, there was widespread speculation that Trudeau would appoint an Indigenous person to that post, a move that would have been historic.

During Trudeau's campaign, a slough of promises were made not only to Canadians, but also to Indigenous people in particular — everything from lifting the two per cent cap on funding for programs and services, to dedicating $2.6 billion over four years for education, to holding a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 recommendations. There was also a pledge to review all legislation imposed by the Harper government upon Indigenous peoples.

Trudeau also said he will take a closer look at questionable legislation such as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act and the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act.

Trudeau plans to meet with leaders from the five national Indigenous organizations by the end of the year. These organizations are the Assembly of First Nations, Native Women's Association of Canada, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council.

Bennett recently stated that the government would likely hold the meeting around the same time the TRC tables its final report, expected on Dec. 15. Bennett said Trudeau is committed to meet with the political leadership at least once a year.

National inquiry

After years of the Conservative government denying calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Bennett has said that consultations with victims' families will begin within weeks. This week in an interview with the Globe and Mail she said that “the government hopes the inquiry will be under way by the summer, if not sooner.”

In another recent interview, Wilson-Raybould said she will be working with Minister Bennett and Patty Hajdu, the minister of Status of Women, to tackle the issue, and most importantly with the families of the missing and murdered.

But the changes in tone aren't just limited to members of the Liberal party.

Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservative Party, surprised many when she told CBC host Rosemary Barton that she'll support a national inquiry.

While these very first steps by the Liberal government are being received as a welcome change in tone, it remains to be seen over the coming years whether it will amount to the renewed nation-to-nation relationship that Trudeau promised during the election.

You might also be interested in...
Fight for 15
B.C. needs a brisk boost to $15/hr minimum wage
Michal Rozworski
December 7, 2017
Justice and equality
Canada must end discrimination against immigrants living with HIV
December 21, 2017