Trudeau used his speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday to frankly acknowledge the dark history of Canada’s colonisation as one of “humiliation, neglect and abuse” and promised to do more to help the nation’s 1.4 million aboriginal people.
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“We know that the world expects Canada to strictly adhere to international human rights standards,” said Trudeau, who has put reconciliation with First Nations at the top of his reform agenda. “That is what we expect of ourselves, too.
“Canada is no land of wonders where hardships that you know do not exist,” said the prime minister, whose country consistently ranks among the world’s highest in living standards. “Canada remains a work in progress.”
Two years after his election, many say Trudeau is not doing enough to help indigenous Canadians, who make up about four percent of the population and face higher levels of poverty and violence and shorter life expectancies.
Canada’s national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women has been hit by resignations and complaints it is progressing too slowly.
For decades, the Canadian government, working with the Catholic Church, took First Nations children from their parents and put them in residential schools to strip them of their culture and language. Thousands of children died in these institutions – the last of which closed in 1996 – and many suffered physical and sexual abuse.
Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor, said she would rather see action from Trudeau than a speech.
“Some of his words were exceptionally powerful [and] would give a lot of hope to a lot of people in Canada. But he falls down every time when it comes to substantive action,” Palmater said.
Many aboriginal communities do not have access to safe drinking water, and suicides have plagued several isolated communities.
Acknowledging Canada’s attempt to force assimilation through residential schooling and other repressive policies, Trudeau called the living conditions aboriginals face “the legacy of colonialism in Canada”.
Trudeau promised to move forward with a review of federal laws and policy and to support indigenous self-determination.
Asked by reporters why he used an international stage to discuss a domestic issue, Trudeau said he wanted to highlight what can be done without telling other leaders how to tackle their own mistakes.
“This is something that is universal and important,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau recently reshuffled his cabinet to put more emphasis on helping aboriginal people, splitting the federal indigenous and northern affairs ministry in two.