Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly warned a First Nations leader against disparaging communities that have agreed to allow the Trans Mountain pipeline across their land in exchange for economic benefits.
The remarkable exchange took place when Judy Wilson, who is chief of the Neskonlith Band and secretary treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, confronted Trudeau at a gathering of First Nations leaders in Ottawa.
Wilson has been outspoken in her opposition to the proposed Alberta-B.C. pipeline. She was the first to question Trudeau after he finished a speech in a packed room at the Westin hotel, where the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was holding its 2018 special chiefs assembly.
During his remarks, Trudeau had stated his government’s commitment to introducing two pieces of federal legislation, on child welfare and on Indigenous languages, when Parliament returns from winter break. He also spoke about his vision of a “new relationship” with Indigenous peoples “guided by recognition of rights” and decolonization of laws.
Wilson praised that work, but then raised the issue of Trudeau’s 2017 speech to the United Nations — which AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde mentioned positively when he introduced Trudeau. Wilson contrasted the speech to his government’s actions on Trans Mountain.
“I applaud the work we’re doing on children and families, and languages,” Wilson said, “but, Prime Minister, when you’re talking about the United Nations, and you’re going to go along with self-determination and consent, why wasn’t that applied with the Trans Mountain pipeline that’s going through 413 kilometres of our territory?”
The crowd broke into applause as Wilson continued, appearing to question the signing of some impact benefit agreements (IBAs) in some communities along the pipeline route.
“There was no consent on that, and you can’t count a few IBAs that you’ve done with some of the communities as consent, because it’s the proper title-holders of those nations that hold the title, and it’s the bands that might have been under duress — or whatever reasons they did that — but it’s not a proper process at all.”
'We should respect people's choices': Trudeau
Standing on stage, Trudeau replied, “I appreciate those words very much, Judy, thank you.” Then he did something unusual: he questioned the questioner.
“I would be careful about minimizing or ascribing reasons for people who take positions that disagree with you,” he said to Wilson.
“I think there are lots of reasons, and I think we should respect people’s choices to support or not support different projects, and I don’t think we should be criticizing them, just because they disagree with you, Judy.”
At this point, the room had become quieter. Trudeau said he recognized that the pipeline project is a “process.”
“The process of respect and partnership means engaging in real, substantive conversations, listening to concerns, and responding to those concerns,” said the prime minister.
“From the very beginning, we recognized that the previous government had failed. Failed to engage appropriately, with communities, with Indigenous peoples, and indeed with the environmental science that needed to happen, before people in general would allow them to move forward on getting our resources to markets other than the United States.”
Earlier this year in an interview with National Observer, Trudeau acknowledged some communities support the pipeline and others do not. He said at that time that individual Indigenous communities are not monolithic. "They all have different perspectives. We’ve got impact benefit agreements with 42 different Indigenous communities along the proposed twinning route and they are very supportive of this pipeline. Others have concerns."
To the First Nations leaders at the hotel, Trudeau addressed the Federal Court of Appeal’s quashing of the government’s approval of the pipeline, characterizing it as the courts saying “no, you have to do it better, you have to engage in it further” and said “we are in the process now of going back and listening even more.”
'That's what happens in North Korea'
Trudeau then tried to draw a contrast between unanimity and majorities, illustrating his point with two lighthearted comments that provoked laughter.
“This is a process that we are engaging in in good faith, in full respect. But it is not a process that ever is going to give unanimity,” he said. “I am prime minister not because 100 per cent of people in this country voted for me — that’s what happens in North Korea.”
The crowd broke into laughter, and a smile crossed Trudeau’s face as he continued. “I am prime minister because we have a system that came through, and asked me and offered me the job to serve as prime minister. That is how we move forward,” he said.
“We know that the only way to move forward as a country on resource projects, big and small...is in true and genuine partnership with Indigenous peoples. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to get everyone to agree all the time. I know the AFN manages to get everyone to agree all the time on all sorts of things.” That provoked another round of laughter.
Trudeau’s explanation of the tricky politics surrounding Trans Mountain served to highlight how uneasy some First Nations peoples are with a government that has paid billions of dollars of public funds to purchase a pipeline project following serious questions about whether the approval process was rigged, and a federal court ruling that said the government didn’t properly conduct consultations.
"I could explain and try to justify it by saying we are starting from a standing start from a (previous) government that hadn't done any consultations adequately over 10 years," said Trudeau. "But that's not good enough as a reason. I apologize for that. We didn't do a good enough job."
New child welfare, languages bills next month
It threatened to overshadow the news the prime minister highlighted in his speech: his promise to introduce new legislation to address child welfare and Indigenous languages. The latter is aimed at helping revive dozens of dying languages in Canada. “A new relationship means working together on legislation to preserve and protect Indigenous languages, which we’ll introduce in Parliament this January,” said Trudeau during his speech.
Trudeau said it was “fitting” to introduce the bill next year “because after all, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.” The year of recognition is being facilitated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
It was almost two years to the day that Trudeau first promised the bill during a Dec. 6, 2016 special chiefs assembly across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que. Trudeau addressed that length of time in an answer to another question, saying “it does take a little longer to get things done through consultation and partnership, but it is the only way to create real lasting change that you can have ownership over.”
Indigenous leaders say such legislation can help allow Indigenous languages to be used in day-to-day government services. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also called for such an act. The residential school system prohibited the use of such languages, in a horrific attempt to erase them from memory.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has also indicated recently that the government will introduce child welfare legislation co-developed with Indigenous communities and leaders.
“Indigenous children should not be forcibly taken away from their homes and their parents – that’s why we’re making it right,” Trudeau said at another point.
“This legislation, which we will table in January, will affirm inherent and treaty rights to exercise jurisdiction over children and families,” said Trudeau.
“As a result, we’ll put kids first, have fewer children in care, and reunite more families. Indigenous communities must be in the driver’s seat. As parents and as communities, you know what’s best for your kids. It’s time we respected that.”
Bellegarde, when introducing the prime minister, said it was the fourth time in a row Trudeau has appeared at the gathering. He heaped praise on the UN speech in 2017, saying it was the first time he could recollect that the head of a nation-state did such “truth-telling” about Canada’s colonial history.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:00 a.m. ET on Dec. 5, 2018 to add additional comments from Trudeau.