Niki Ashton, NDP MP, Rips Trudeau's Remark About 'Colonial Past'

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made two references to colonialism in the span of 10 minutes during a talk with New York University students Thursday, but only one of those remarks surfaced in question period the next day.

NDP MP Niki Ashton rose in the House of Commons Friday to say that Trudeau told American students that Canada doesn't have the baggage of colonialism.

"I repeat, he said that Canada doesn't have the baggage of colonialism," she said, incredulous.

niki ashton
NDP MP Niki Ashton asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on June 4, 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Ashton wondered if such a remark might explain why, "six days after taking office," the federal government signed a "secret deal" to let the Catholic Church out of its obligation to provide millions of dollars in restitution for residential school survivors. The story was first reported by The Globe and Mail.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett responded that "this government" did no such thing, saying the previous government signed the agreement on Oct. 30, days before Liberals took office on Nov. 4.

"We believe that the Catholic Church and only the Catholic Church can achieve reconciliation with indigenous people in this country and we are urging them to do the right thing, and pay the money that they promised to pay," Bennett said. "They have a moral obligation to do this for the healing of indigenous people."

Bennett then tried to "clarify" what Trudeau said to U.S. students, but ran out of time.

justin trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a question and answer session with students at New York University in New York on April 21, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Trudeau: 'Awful lot of work to do'

A video of the prime minister's session at NYU shows that he did make references to colonialism, after two questions: one about First Nations and the other of Canada's history of peacekeeping.

After a student asked Trudeau how his government was going to improve the quality of life for First Nations, the prime minister said that while Canada "talks a pretty good game" on human rights, for "past decades, and indeed centuries" the country has failed indigenous peoples.

"We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of people who live in Canada, our indigenous peoples," he told the group.

"We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of people who live in Canada, our indigenous peoples."
— Justin Trudeau

Trudeau said his government is committed to re-shaping the nation-to-nation relationship with Canada's indigenous communities, and noted that the federal budget's earmarked $8.4-billion over five years in aboriginal funding won't be enough to solve all problems in infrastructure, education, and health.

"There is an awful lot of work to do," he said.

Next, a student asked if peacekeeping might be a part of Canada's future, not just its past.

Trudeau said he was committed to re-engaging with United Nations peacekeeping. He added Canada has a capacity to head to "some of the difficult places in the world without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, whether it's colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism, as a critique that's often out there."

And it's that quote Ashton, a possible candidate for the NDP leadership, referenced in question period Friday.

Trudeau's full talk can be seen below. The two questions referenced in this story can be heard between the 27:00-37:00 mark:

Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau's press secretary, told The Huffington Post Canada that the prime minister was referring to foreign affairs and drawing a distinction between Canada and other nations that engaged in colonialism beyond their borders.

"It's quite clear how the prime minister thinks about attitudes to indigenous people in past years, and all the work that needs to be done to rectify that," Ahmad said.

In 2009, former prime minister Stephen Harper sparked controversy when he told an American audience at the G20 in summit in Pittsburgh that Canada has "no history of colonialism."

"So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them," Harper said at the time, according to reports.

Then-Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo demanded an apology, saying the remark reflected a "need for greater public education about First Nations and Canadian history."

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