by Tim Harper
Perhaps it was the impatience of youth.
More likely, it was the impatience of a First Nations generation meeting a prime minister who has raised expectations sky high.
When Justin Trudeau visited Saskatoon’s Oskayak High School this week, he got his share of selfies and delighted squeals, but he got something else – tough questions from First Nations teens on their futures and his promises.
They were not smitten with celebrity. They were showcasing themselves as the potential leaders of a First Nations generation that will hold Trudeau and his successors at their word when they speak of a new relationship.
They asked Trudeau about First Nations suicides, genocide, Third World living conditions and respect for treaties.
What are we physically going to see with your budgetary investments, asked Mafif Singer. Why is this taking so long, asked Charisa Tootoosis.
When Tahris Bear, a 19-year-old from Sweetgrass First Nation, rose she stumbled briefly, betraying her nervousness, before she found her voice. “How do you intend to honour the promises your ancestors made with mine exactly written in all the signed treaties across Canada, to make up and pay for the acts of genocide our ancestors were subject to long before and after the signing of Treaty Six?
“How do you, Justin, with all your politicians and representatives, plan to right the wrongs of the past 22 elected prime ministers who failed?”
“Are we not considered Canadians as well? If we are, why do you allow the First People of this land to endure and live in Third World conditions?”
Trudeau’s answer wasn’t bad, but it was rambling, and as a general rule of thumb with this prime minister (and most politicians) the longer the answer, the less of an answer it actually is.
Afterward, Bear told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix she was underwhelmed, that she received a “politician’s answer.”
The point is, Trudeau has promised First Nations much and he had better deliver.
He has backed much of it with an $8.4-billion spending commitment over five years in the recent federal budget.
He has promised to end boil-water advisories in five years. Thursday he visited Shoal Lake, a First Nations community on the Manitoba-Ontario border that has been under a boil water advisory for two decades. He was accompanied by a VICE News crew in a private visit for a coming documentary, simultaneously showing he believes he can deliver on his promises, knows he has already funded a road that will free up the isolated community, understands the value of the massively staged photo op and doesn’t mind angering other news organizations barred from joining him.
He will convene an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. He has promised to begin anew the nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations.
These are big promises and events keep reminding how big these challenges are.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has given the Liberals two weeks to comply with its January ruling, which said the government discriminated against First Nations children on reserves by not providing them with the same welfare services as exist elsewhere.
Eleven suicide attempts in one night in Attawapiskat highlighted what some are calling a national First Nations suicide epidemic and a fire that claimed nine lives in Pikangikum in northern Ontario highlighted the substandard housing, lack of services and running water on First Nations reserves.
Trudeau told the Saskatoon students that change is like turning around an ocean liner and that Ottawa can’t do it alone. It will take billions of more dollars and many more years to erase the scar of the treatment of First Nations on the Canadian morality, he said.
Indigenous Canadians, too, have a lot of work to do, he told them, and they and his government must work together.
If Trudeau cannot deliver, it will be the next generation embodied in Oskayak that will hold him and his successors accountable. This is a school that is a home to 300 students from 51 First Nations across Saskatchewan. Most of them live on their own. Twenty per cent have children of their own.
These are teens who did not fit in elsewhere, but now celebrate their history and their culture and daily discuss treaty rights, housing issues, homelessness and missing and murdered women.
The students demand that, says principal Bernadette Laliberte. Such issues are never far from their minds, she told me. They had less than 24 hours to prepare questions for Trudeau. But this was not some social sciences class.
These kids are living this, and this is the generation that will keep our politicians honest.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services