Will Aboriginals Get Real Change Under Trudeau?

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) mark a significant turn in the way countries are being asked to address global issues. This agenda has an extended focus to environmental and sustainability goals along with those focused on poverty eradication. This change demands that developed countries look within themselves for areas of improvement and not just in aiding developing countries. Within the SDGs, certain targets are clearly more poignant to Canada than others, and Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government must begin to consider how to tackle these.

Perhaps the most glaring is SDG goal number 10, “to reduce inequality within and among countries.” There is little debate that Canada’s Aboriginal community lives far below the acceptable standards that the rest of Canadians enjoy, and that there exists great inequality between these two demographics. Aboriginals make up 50% of children in foster care, are 2 ½ times more likely to live in poverty, and they receive a median income 30% lower than the rest of Canada. Other indicators such as educational attainment, crowding and homelessness, poor drinking water, infant mortality and health and suicide lag behind the numbers for the rest of Canada as well.

Outside of the fact that this is clearly a human development issue this has also been an extremely easy area of domestic policy for the international community to criticize, continuing to hurt Canada’s slipping global image. This may stand to change as Trudeau has been extremely vocal about immediately addressing these issues and working with the Aboriginal community to create change. While this is clearly the path that needs to be taken, has Trudeau over committed to policies he has little hope of implementing?

Trudeau has committed to all 94 recommendations under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to the six principles identified in the Kelowna Accord, along with launching an immediate investigation into missing Aboriginal women, and commitments to areas such as education, language, skills and investment training and clean water. Some of these areas are easier to address than others. For example, Trudeau has pledged $515 million per year to fund education from kindergarten to grade 12, but incorporating new curriculum on Aboriginal history into the rest of Canada’s curriculum may be more difficult. Curriculum is not decided at a national level, but by province or territory leaving the new Federal government no direct means of enforcing their policy. While there is the Council of Ministers of Education were the provinces and Ottawa come together to agree on standards, this is different than setting a common curriculum. This council may still represent Trudeau’s best chance to encourage the inclusion of Aboriginal history, but it is unlikely to be achieved expeditiously.

Furthermore, while unofficially in the party platform, Trudeau publicly promised to tackle the issue of safe water for Aboriginals. Upon looking at the Liberal’s costing plan, the reader is left with the question of how this project will be funded. The current monetary commitments for Aboriginals are targeted to new education partnerships, education infrastructure, increased support to post-secondary students and Aboriginal skills and investment training. These areas represent a total new investment of $300 million in 2015-2016, but nowhere in this budget is money specifically set aside for clean water. Clean drinking water falls under numerous jurisdictions, including at the federal, provincial and municipal level, and poor water quality is not a problem specific to one location.

So who will be footing the bill for this program, and if the answer is the federal government, how do they intend to fund it? It is not yet included in their budget, nor is the timeline for federal spending on this infrastructure. Clearly outlined in the Liberal costing plan is a decline in funding to Aboriginals by 2019, but if provinces and cities can’t afford this type of infrastructure upgrade and maintenance then this program could stay on the federal books longer than expected, assuming it gets off the ground at all.

Clearly Aboriginal policy is much more nuanced than agreeing to treaty commitments and promising to open up the proverbial federal wallet. What awaits the Liberal party if they should be unable to meet these goals? Obviously there will be disappointment domestically heading into the next election, but there is now also growing pressure internationally with the SDGs. Perhaps Trudeau should have focused on promises that fell more easily under these goals and were potentially easier to achieve for his more immediate targets. While this is a more pessimistic view, it is also perhaps a more practical one.

Ainslee Kent is an MA Student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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