It was one of the most memorable moments at the Tragically Hip's final concert in Kingston, Ontario last August. Gord Downie, after sharing an embrace with Justin Trudeau before the concert began, had this to say during the show.
"We're in good hands, folks, real good hands. He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what's going on up there.
"And what's going on up there ain't good. It's maybe worse than it's ever been ... (but) we're going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.''
Many thought it was an astounding endorsement from a legendary Canadian musician who honestly believed Trudeau would turn the page on two centuries of injustices towards Canada's Indigenous peoples. But even if Downie sincerely believes in Trudeau, his praise has painted the prime minister into a corner where typical government foot-dragging simply won't do.
Not to be overly dramatic, but this was basically the wish of a dying man, a man who is traversing the Canadian north to raise money and awareness for First Nations communities. He's all in, and he may have inadvertently set up Trudeau to fail. Indeed, after one year in office, Indigenous leaders have given Trudeau a failing grade.
Trudeau's biggest asset is his personal brand. The camera is kind to him, and he has the gift of establishing emotional connections with many Canadians who spent a decade listening to the lifeless words of Stephen Harper. The problem he faces, now that he has been on the job for over a year, is turning his flowery rhetoric into tangible policy initiatives.
If this initial year is a Trudeau policy barometer, the First Nations file is the first casualty of the disconnect between his rhetoric and the expected follow through behind it. Tragically, the gap between speeches and actions is just as vast as it has been for decades under previous Liberal and Conservative governments.
His inaction on the First Nations file directly contradicts the inspirational sound bites and calls into question his government's integrity.
That may seem harsh, but to activists on the ground it is the grade he earned. The list of shortcomings is a long one, and each broken or unfulfilled promise is chipping away at Trudeau's public persona of being a champion for Indigenous affairs.
For example, Trudeau campaigned on a promise to make "science-based" decision-making as part of a "renewed relationship" with Canada's Indigenous communities. The government said they would not allow energy companies to break ground unless detailed environmental assessments were conducted and supported by native populations impacted by development.
But without warning, the Trudeau government approved BC Hydro's construction of the Site C Dam, putting Peace River communities at severe risk in the process. The project will flood 100 kilometers of the Peace River valley, decimating fertile agricultural land; causing irreparable harm to fish and wildlife populations, according to the Joint Review Panel.
Trudeau has yet to seriously address the construction of the dam, likely due to the obvious contradiction between his reputation as a real progressive and this decidedly unprogressive stance.
That issue is one of many that offset Downie's praising of Trudeau's commitment to First Nation communities.
The most egregious slight came when Trudeau's government refused to meet two compliance orders by the Human Rights Tribunal pertaining to the welfare of Indigenous children.
Documents proved the Trudeau government had determined what it would spend on child welfare long before the tribunal ordered it to increase funding, ignoring its legal responsibility to abide the tribunal's decision and thus placing more First Nation children at risk. Once again, Trudeau has not specifically addressed the lack of governmental compliance, choosing to speak ambiguously by stating that "more needs to be done" to help Indigenous Canadians.
"The first costed-out promise Justin Trudeau made during the election was to Indigenous children. It was the first promise he broke," NDP MP and critic for Indigenous Affairs, Charlie Angus said recently. "He has broken faith too many times on the key promises of action on education and child welfare."
Following through on Indigenous issues is politically inconvenient, especially for a leader who relies on his charm to secure support, and hopes that charm will soften the blow when he doesn't deliver.
Trudeau apologists like to point out that only so much can be accomplished with just one year in power. But when documents prove that the government never had the intention to take a tribunal seriously, a tribunal dealing specifically with the dire issue of child welfare, the excuses begin to fall flat.
Everybody knows Trudeau is a brilliant campaigner, inspiring Canadians through a personal brand that emphasizes empathy and fairness, but his inaction on the First Nations file directly contradicts the inspirational sound bites and calls into question his government's integrity. In fact, it isn't a stretch to say that his handling of this file is as bad as the Harper government who backburnered these issues for a decade.
Another broken promise came earlier this year when the government flip-flopped on implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. During the 2015 campaign, Trudeau adamantly derided the Harper government for not adopting what the UN had put forth.
At the UN in May of this year, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that Canada was officially removing its objector status to the declaration. Her announcement was met with a rousing applause at the UN and high hopes for native Canadians at home.
But in July, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould contradicted her own government's position, calling the prospect of actually implementing it into law a "simplistic approach" that was "unworkable" and a "political distraction."
Those words and that embrace were between two men: one who sincerely feels the dire importance of repairing the lives of Indigenous people, and one who just pretends he does.
Perhaps a more fitting description would be that following through on Indigenous issues is politically inconvenient, especially for a leader who relies on his charm to secure support, and hopes that charm will soften the blow when he doesn't deliver. Even worse than not delivering is the added punch of having members of the Liberal party making racially charged statements when responding to real concerns over the safety of water on reserves. Trudeau's leadership is being questioned, and rightfully so.
This is why Downie's embrace and endorsement of Trudeau's commitment to Indigenous affairs is so compelling, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Again, Downie's words serve almost as the last wishes of a man on death's door, making Trudeau's broken promises a slight not just to native Canadians but to a Canadian icon who is spending the last chapter of his life championing the cause he believes in.
Trudeau still has time to right these wrongs, and in doing so he can legitimize Downie's endorsement. But until he follows through, those words and that embrace were between two men: one who sincerely feels the dire importance of repairing the lives of Indigenous people, and one who just pretends he does.
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