OTTAWA — The leaders of Canada's First Nations swaddled Justin Trudeau in a ceremonial blanket Tuesday as they embraced the newly elected prime minister's commitment to what he called a "sacred obligation'' to the country's Aboriginal Peoples.
Trudeau didn't show up empty-handed, either.
The Liberal government will lift a long-standing two per cent cap on federal funding for First Nations communities, he told the Assembly of First Nations gathering — that, despite mounting economic and political pressure on the federal pocketbook.
An elder stands beside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he was presented with a blanket at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
He said the Liberals would also provide additional money for long-awaited education reforms to be led by First Nations communities themselves, another long-standing sticking point with the previous Conservative government.
And he repeated one of the most anticipated promises of the 2015 campaign: to investigate the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Three of his cabinet lieutenants kicked off the first consultative phase of what will be a federal inquiry next year.
"I promise you that I will be your partner in the years to come, and hope that you will be mine," Trudeau said.
The removal of the funding cap, which was imposed originally to keep transfer payments in line with inflation, has been at the top of the First Nations wish list for years. Critics say it has long since fallen out of step with a growing aboriginal population across the country.
"As you know, that limit has been in place for nearly 20 years," Trudeau said of the cap, which he said would disappear in the government's first budget.
"It hasn't kept up with the demographic realities of your communities, nor the actual costs of program delivery."
At one point during Trudeau's appearance, he was wrapped in a ceremonial blanket, to the delight of the crowd. An AFN spokesman described the blanket as a gift meant to convey respect and protect the prime minister from harm.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who has spent the government's first days in the hot seat during question period, was asked Tuesday how much the removal of the cap would cost.
He would only say that the details would be in next spring's federal budget.
"We have made this inquiry a priority for our government because those touched by this national tragedy have waited long enough."
But the most anticipated news came later in the day, when Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu detailed the first phase of the forthcoming missing and murdered inquiry.
Wilson-Raybould, one of two cabinet ministers with indigenous roots, said the government will consult the families of victims over the next two months for their input on the inquiry's shape and its goals.
"We will listen clearly to their voices," Wilson-Raybould said.
"No inquiry, as we know, can undo what happened nor can it restore what we have lost. But it can help us find ways forward because we know, as a country, we can and must do better."
A website will also allow Canadians to provide input online and learn more about the process, helping to determine the inquiry's terms of reference, Bennett added.
She also hinted that the inquiry could last longer — and cost more — than the two-year, $40-million envelope that was originally projected.
"We are going to go out and listen to what people say this needs to look like, and we will then have to apply what budget that will take," she said.
"First the facts, and then we will see."
Some family members said they felt compelled to head to Parliament Hill to hear first-hand how the initial steps of the inquiry will take shape.
Christine Simard-Chicago, who lost a cousin to the hardscrabble street life of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, said she believes the inquiry will prove to be a "hard road" for many.
"There's a lot of stories that need to be told and the circumstances are unique because they're from different territories and from different tribes," said Simard-Chicago. "It is really important that the government hear that."
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told the gathering he's confident that Trudeau is listening to the different needs of First Nations.
"In his mandate letter to each and every cabinet minister, Prime Minister Trudeau wrote it is time for a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples," Bellegarde said.
"Very powerful words."
I was honoured to speak to AFN Chiefs this morning. It’s time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship. pic.twitter.com/WwUlgvI52t— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) December 8, 2015
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