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A black-and-white photo shows Pierre Trudeau standing and talking to Indigenous leaders.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks during a dramatic meeting with the entire federal cabinet and a delegation of about 200 First Nations leaders on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1970. THE CANADIAN PRESS/R. Mac

Pierre Trudeau’s failures on Indigenous rights tarnish his legacy

More than a half century ago, Pierre Trudeau became Canada’s 15th prime minister. He is one of the notable holders of this office and his achievements were remarkable. For some, however, his tenure is seen as damaging to Canada, including on Indigenous issues.

Nations sometimes harshly judge their past leaders, especially when they have led through nation-defining events. We see their leadership as having shaped our current political realities. This is particularly so in nations facing unresolved issues of inclusion and fairness; a fractious national spirit has its roots in the past exacerbation of differences and in the lost opportunities for reconciliation.

Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, has borne much of this burden of blame when it comes to First Nations. His rigorous efforts to remove the culture, language and life skills of Indigenous communities are now considered by some to be cultural genocide.

Read more: Education and democracy can help address monuments that are a reminder of racist pasts

Trudeau, however, is a successor to this national shame. He, like too many Canadians, failed to grasp the enormity of this history, or the extent to which it was still in force, with residential schools, Indian Agents and brutal social conditions. His rejection of emerging Indigenous self-government contributed to this ongoing national tragedy.

Trudeau understood the conditions

Trudeau understood fully the conditions in which many Indigenous Peoples lived in 1969. Yet he found the notion of treaty rights between two groups within the same society or special status for any group at odds with his notion of common and equal citizenship.

Pierre Trudeau speaks as Jean Chrétien sits beside him.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa in 1972 with Jean Chrétien beside him. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg

He and Jean Chrétien, his minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time, proposed in a white paper in 1969 that the special legal relationship between First Nations and the government of Canada be severed and all Indigenous Peoples fully integrated into Canadian life.

The paper was met with forceful opposition from Indigenous leaders across the country and sparked a new era of Indigenous political organizing in Canada. Trudeau soon recognized that his largely assimilationist policy was not likely to convince anyone that it was either workable or just.

He did not apologize for this error in judgment, however, but simply withdrew the proposal. He did ask Canadians, however, to correct the distorted views and misunderstandings they might hold about Indigenous Peoples.

Canada’s worst face of colonialism

How did a national leader whose animating political spirit was protecting human rights come to adopt a passive acceptance of Canada’s worst face of colonialism?

How did he fail to recognize the country’s many injustices and neglect to develop policy from the basic framework of promoting equal dignity and respect for all?

Ironically, it’s his oldest son who’s now grappling with his lapses.

Pierre Trudeau carries a baby Justin Trudeau.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by an RCMP officer as he carries his son, Justin, to Rideau Hall in 1973 to attend an outdoor reception. Almost 50 years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now lives on the grounds of Rideau Hall. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg

The elder Trudeau’s accomplishments were many. They include building public consent for patriating the Constitution, bilingualism, modernizing Canada’s criminal law, adopting limited constitutional protection of rights and forging constitutional protections for minority communities.

His success at governing, however, was only partial. Areas where he failed have mattered immensely — lack of unity between Canada’s anglophones and francophones, failure of complete rights protection and little progress in developing a workable governing regime for Canada’s Indigenous nations.

Trudeau poses for a photo with Inuit leaders.
Pierre Trudeau poses for photos in Ottawa in 1981 with Inuit leaders and Indian Affairs Minister John Munro to talk about aboriginal and treaty rights in the proposed Canadian constitution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Yes, Trudeau shaped our nation. But confronting the social evidence of the harms of racism, privilege, sexism and colonialism in Canadian society were not his primary focus. Perhaps his own privilege allowed him to avert his attention from many injustices.

More successfully, he promoted equality and challenged the existing Canadian narrative by reminding Canadians they had built a successful, prosperous, diverse nation because of wise decisions made and values embraced. Those shared values were, he maintained, the basis of Canada; Canadians believed “in the equality of people without distinction of sex or language or racial origin or religious origin or colour or creed,” he said in a citizenship ceremony in Toronto in 1977.

‘Multiculturalism’ also clouded

Trudeau believed Canadians saw virtue in preserving ethnic differences. For him, that was accomplished through the adoption of official multiculturalism in 1971. It heralded for many a new identity — and Canada was often held up as an example to the world of how diverse communities could live together and prosper.

In retrospect, even this achievement has its cloud. Increasing evidence of systemic racism, especially against Black people, has brought considerable criticism to Trudeau’s much celebrated multiculturalism. It has, in part, allowed Canadians to ignore the harsh realities of their racialized peers while claiming they are not racist, they’re multicultural.

Read more: Dear white people, wake up: Canada is racist

Trudeau insisted that all individuals had to be protected from the repressive powers of the state. Yet, the accomplishments of women were limited despite great hopes on such issues as equal pay for equal work, child care and access to abortion. His utterances in debates on a number of social issues such as abortion and homosexuality are cringe-worthy when viewed today.

He said in 1968 that he was dealing with “crime and decency,” not sanctioning homosexuality or making abortion any easier. He was “separating the idea of sin and the idea of crime,” he said, warning those engaged in certain activities would have to answer for their sins to their God, not the police.

‘Don’t ask us to change the past’

Trudeau seldom, if ever, apologized for government policy and actions. His idea of acting effectively was not to lament, but resolve. History mattered little to him: “Whether there have been 100 years of injustice is unimportant. Don’t ask us to change the past,” he once said.

Pierre Trudeau with a carnation in his mouth.
Pierre Trudeau, a carnation in his mouth, before being elected leader of the Liberal Party in 1968. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Mitchell

His moral responsibility for past harms was to resolve not to repeat the harm and to do better. He saw regret embedded in apology as facile self-indulgence. He placed conflicts in a frame of deeper and bigger issues and seemed to heap scorn on those whose perspective seemed mired in smaller interests. No critical analysis of an issue seemed to impress him as much as his own.

Trudeau believed he helped construct Canada as a good nation of triumph and progress, a country that offered a better hope of inclusion than most states.

He saw himself as upholding the legacy of the makers of Canada, who he believed were “remarkable people,” creating a country through “the force of a vision larger than its time.” They were “building a country to match a dream,” and it was Canadian’s duty “to repay their inheritance.”

He had faith that Canadians could fulfil his dreams for a better, more inclusive, and just nation — but his failures on Indigenous rights tarnishes that legacy. It’s left to Canadians today – and to his son, Justin — to do better.

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