Last week’s federal election brought major political change to America’s neighbor to the north. Former Canadian Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper was ousted by Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau, son of the charismatic former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. The win marks the conclusion of a long incumbency for Harper, who was in office for nearly a decade.
Undoubtedly, Trudeau’s win is a reflection of Canadians’ frustration with Harper and his administration. Canadians are angry about Harper’s efforts to defund High Arctic government research centers, and to eliminate the Canadian long-form census. They’re angry about his attempts to suppress voter turnout, through the misleadingly-titled Fair Elections Act, which, like voter-identification laws in the United States, makes it challenging for Canadians to vote without approved identification, and disproportionately impacts young people and minorities. It’s no wonder that voter turnout, particularly among youth, jumped seven percent from the last federal election in 2011. This time, more than 68 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Trudeau ran on a platform of progressive change; he promotes stronger environmental regulations, the legalization of marijuana and the implementation of new legislation promoting “fair and open government.” These are all important steps towards rebuilding Canada’s position on the world stage as a progressive, peace-keeping nation, following years under a federal government that chipped away at the nation’s once proud reputation.
But throughout his tenure, Trudeau should aim to do more than simply recover the old Canadian way. It is essential that he works to build a more tolerant, more united nation by working with factions of Canadian society that have been too often overlooked by the federal government. Mending the country’s relationship with Aboriginal people through the remediation of systemic inequalities that impose unfair limits on socio-economic mobility is an important step towards building an accepting, open-minded Canada, and ought to be a priority of the Trudeau government.
Mr. Harper’s record with the Aboriginal community is abysmal. During his time in office, he cut $60 million from Aboriginal organizational budgets and stated that an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women “isn’t really high on the radar”, despite the nearly 300 women who have been found in suspicious circumstances throughout his tenure. Although in 2008 Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for residential schools, an abusive system implemented to assimilate Aboriginal youth, his action on behalf of this community ends there. After ten years under Harper, conditions for Canada’s Aboriginal people are disgraceful. Aboriginal youth make up over half of Canada’s foster care system, one in four Aboriginal children lives in poverty, and over 90 First Nations communities lack access to safe drinking water. In response to the disproportionately high levels of violence that Aboriginal women face, Harper has implemented domestic violence programs, simplistically blaming Aboriginal men for problems within the community, and failing to acknowledge the role that outsiders play in the issue of violence against Aboriginal women.
By supporting Canada’s Aboriginal population, Trudeau has the opportunity to further differentiate himself from his predecessor, and reduce one of the largest socio-political divisions in Canada. Further, the rise of Aboriginal activist organizations such as the prominent group, Idle No More, as well as increased Aboriginal voter turnout in the recent federal election have illustrated that the Aboriginal cause is not only a just one. Supporting this community is also politically valuable.
Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation committee’s report this summer, which outlines most Aboriginal peoples’ living situations, and proposes means towards improving relations between the Aboriginal community and the government, there has been increased dialogue and reflection regarding how to most effectively improve conditions for First Nations and Métis people. Because of this dialogue, and the substantive solutions brought forward, now is the time to fight for changes to a system that has left too many Aboriginal Canadians without the means necessary to achieve social mobility.
Trudeau’s first step could be to appoint an Aboriginal Member of Parliament as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. At the very least he could appoint an experienced MP with a longstanding record of working with the community. This would serve as an effective symbol to Aboriginal populations that the Trudeau government values their voices and recognizes the importance of minority representation in government. A second step would be to follow through with the public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that the Liberals promised during the campaign. The inquiry would illustrate that the government values the lives of Aboriginal women, and recognizes that the reasons behind this issue are complex and often systemic, rather than victim-blaming Aboriginal men.
Lastly, the Trudeau administration must follow through on its promise to invest $2.6 billion over four years in Aboriginal education in order to bridge the socio-economic gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the population, as well as to make up for the “ten lost years” under the Harper administration.
It’s time for Canada to remedy the grave injustices inflicted upon our most vulnerable people, and for Trudeau and the Liberal Party to follow through on some of the promises that allowed Aboriginal people to vote Liberal so easily. Time and time again, Canada’s Aboriginal voices have been marginalized and silenced. It’s time for a Canada that supports its Aboriginal community and fights the complex, deeply entrenched systems of oppression that inhibit quality of life and limit opportunities for Aboriginal Canadians to this day