Justin Trudeau extends olive branch to Indigenous people opposed to Site C dam and new pipelines

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      What's largely gone unnoticed in the media this summer has been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts to patch up his sometimes rocky relationship with Indigenous leaders, particularly in B.C.

      In the past, Trudeau has come under scathing criticism from influential First Nations people in B.C. for his support for the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

      The Site C dam received federal permits while being challenged in court by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to grant leave to appeal so that they could carry on their fight.

      In the meantime, Amnesty International is waging a major international campaign, arguing that by supporting the Site C dam, the Trudeau government is overriding Indigenous rights.

      The Assembly of First Nations has also voiced its support for the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations.

      Kinder Morgan's expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline system would result in a nearly seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers in Georgia and Juan de Fuca straits. 

      That's generated huge opposition in Indigenous communities, perhaps most vocally from the Tsleil-Waututh and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

      The federal government has also come under fire following various resignations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

      Reconciliation efforts ramped up in June

      Trudeau's recent charm offensive was on display two days before National Aboriginal Day, when he and his wife Sophie attended a ceremony at Rideau Hall honouring leadership on Indigenous issues.

      Trudeau was seen on TV wiping tears from his eyes when Indigenous actor Tom Jackson made an emotional speech about how the maple leaf on the Canadian flag was his sister.

      Watch Justin Trudeau's reaction to a speech by actor Tom Jackson.

      Two days later on June 21, Trudeau announced that he wants to change the name of National Aboriginal Day to National Indigenous Peoples Day.

      Then on July 31, Trudeau visited Tsilhquot'in Nation leaders in the Cariboo area of B.C. to discuss the wildfire situation.

      “In one of the most critical times for the Tsilhqot’in Nation, the respect and recognition demonstrated by the prime minister was extremely meaningful and positive to witness for the Tsilhqot’in Leadership," Chief Joe Alphonse said in a statement. "We thank the prime minister for taking the time to meet with us as we begin to put a true Nation to Nation relationship into action.”

      Trudeau was accompanied by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and Minister of Sport and Persons With Disabilities Carla Qualtrough. The Tsilhquot'in Nation works closely with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

      On the B.C. Day long weekend, Trudeau was in Tofino meeting with First Nations leaders with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

      Its traditional territory straddles coastal waters where oil tankers travel carrying oil shipped through the Kinder Morgan pipeline. A high-profile Nuu-chah-nulth member, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, is a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

      Trudeau also went kayaking in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It's in the federal riding of Elizabeth May and the provincial riding of Adam Olsen—two Green party politicians vehemently opposed to the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

      Olsen, a deputy leader of the B.C. Greens, is of Tsartlip/W̱SÁNEĆ heritage.

      Indigneous people have led the fight against Kinder Morgan's plan to triple the amount of oil shipped from Alberta to B.C.
      Amanda Siebert

      Trudeau reiterates support for UN declaration 

      Today, Trudeau took another step in trying to improve the relationship.

      He issued a statement on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, offering a ringing endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

      The declaration affirms that Indigenous peoples "have the right to maintain their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard".

      In addition, the declaration states: "Indigenous people have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired."

      “Many Indigenous leaders in Canada persevered over twenty-five years to advocate for, draft, and negotiate the UN Declaration," Trudeau said in his statement today. "Canada is grateful for their leadership, and fully supports the declaration.

      “No relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples. We are taking concrete steps to create a renewed relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation—based on recognition of rights, respect, collaboration, and partnership."

      The prime minister also declared that Canada is "working collaboratively, transparently, and on a distinctions-basis to co-develop national First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation languages legislation, and we are making progress to address the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission".

      "We are also creating a new space for Indigenous Peoples near Parliament Hill, which will honour our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with Indigenous Peoples and recognize their importance to this country’s foundation and its future," he said.

      Trudeau's political problems around the Site C dam could be alleviated if the new NDP government mothballs the $8.8-billion project following a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

      However, the Kinder Morgan project will likely remain a hot issue for years to come, given Trudeau's oft-stated desire to export Alberta oil.

      The prime minister is also a vocal supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was opposed by the Obama administration but which has been resuscitated by Donald Trump.

      As long as these two projects are still on the front burner, Trudeau can expect continued resistance in First Nations communities in B.C.

      And it remains an open question whether his other efforts will be enough to calm the waters sufficiently for him to paddle toward reelection in 2019.