Seven words to inspire a nation

Seven words to inspire a nation
Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Racism and sexism in this country kills.” Seven words to inspire a nation, uttered not seven weeks after Canadian voters gave Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals the political capital to change how the country interacts with itself and the rest of the world.

The quote, the perfect sequel to Trudeau’s “because it’s 2015,” was voiced by Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, at once a conversation-stopper and an action-starter.

That statement, made as the Liberal government gets a national missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) inquiry underway, juxtaposed against former prime minister Stephen Harper’s now-infamous line dismissing the MMIW “phenomenon” as not registering on the Conservatives’ radar, is surreal. After almost 10 years of a government with its head in the sand, the pace of change seems almost breakneck.

The inquiry will be welcomed nowhere more than in Northern Canada. Statistics Canada recently reported some of the highest rates of violent crime in Canada are found in the Northwest Territories. A cursory review of the NWT territorial criminal docket one day last week revealed 181 charges under Section 266 of the Criminal Code, which deals with assault.

A MMIW inquiry is one of the five points in Trudeau’s plan to renew relations with First Nation, Métis and Inuit groups, which he revealed the same day at a special meeting of the regional chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations. Repealing legislation that was “unilaterally imposed” (the inference being “by the Conservatives”) is another.

“Where measures are found to be in conflict with your rights, where they are inconsistent with the principles of good governance, or where they simply make no public policy sense, we will rescind them,” Trudeau said to applause.

Clapping when there is a blank cheque at the front of the room is easy, but the challenge before the Liberals on this front is the same that will dog them as they roll out a social policy agenda nine years or more in the making: money talks. The early consultative phase of the MMIW inquiry has already begun with plans to launch proceedings in earnest in the spring. In budgeting $40 million over two years, the Liberals have bet on the price tag landing somewhere between the Ipperwash inquiry, which cost $13.3 million in 2003, and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which cost $60 million. Bennett has alluded to the inquiry possibly lasting longer and costing more.

The last three points of Trudeau’s plan will not be any easier to pay for. The first, making “significant” investments in First Nations education, would cost billions before 2019 if Liberal campaign figures hold up. Trudeau said in Saskatoon on Aug. 13 his plan included pouring $515 million into base annual funding for First Nations K-12 education, plus $50 million more for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program for indigenous college and university students. He pledged another $500 million over three years for educational infrastructure.

The third point in Trudeau’s plan is likewise worthy of applause but may also lead to sticker-shock: lifting the two per cent cap on annual increases to payments to First Nations from the federal government is long overdue. The freeze was enacted in 1996 but the First Nations population has grown by more than six per cent yearly since and inflation has reduced the buying power of those dollars even further.

Tackling that gap, which manifests most visibly in the decrepit housing stock many indigenous communities cannot afford to maintain let alone replace, will be a significant undertaking. So too will be Trudeau’s fifth point, an ambitious plan to implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Some of the costs of those recommendations would be fairly straightforward, for example the construction of a highly visible monument in each provincial and territorial capital. Others, such as creating mandatory curriculum on residential schools for K-12, reducing the number of Aboriginal children in government care, improving healthcare outcomes for Aboriginal people and increasing funding to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to better enable it to support reconciliation, may be harder to suss out.

Well into 2016, once the cost implications of all these noble plans come more into focus, it will likely be time for sober second thoughts. What, of all the wonderful things promised by the federal Liberals, can Canada afford? Expectations will be high. It will be tough, but necessary then to set priorities, do what has to be done but at the same time the spending to include only what is affordable.

In the meantime, Trudeau and company are on the right track making a MMIW inquiry their first order of business, one important enough to all Canadians to be a priority for funding even in a deficit environment. The time is now. It will not be 2015 for much longer.

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