Canada’s Trudeau Uses UN Speech to Confront Painful Pasts

Following his Sept. 21, 2017, speech to the United Nations General Assembly, dedicated to Canada’s abuse of its indigenous population, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an interview that his country’s example could help the United States confront the white-supremacist violence that left one activist dead in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. (Adam Klasfeld/CNS)

UNITED NATIONS (CN) – Dedicating his United Nations speech on Thursday to his country’s abuse of its indigenous population, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Courthouse News later that its example could help the United States confront white supremacy.

“Part of my desire to share Canada’s shame but also the path that we are taking to address the mistakes we made in the past is to highlight that it can and should be done,” Trudeau told Courthouse News.

Canada recently marked the 150th anniversary of its confederation, and the ninth anniversary of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission that found it committed a “cultural genocide” against its indigenous population.

“The good news is that Canadians get it,” Trudeau told the assembly earlier in the day. “They see the inequities. They’re fed up with the excuses. And that impatience gives us a rare and precious opportunity to act. We now have before us an opportunity to deliver true, meaningful and lasting reconciliation between Canada and First Nations, the Metis Nation, and Inuit peoples.”

At a press conference following his speech, Courthouse News asked the prime minister whether Canada’s path could inspire similar efforts in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a suspected white-supremacist terror attack left activist Heather Heyer dead and wounded others.

Trudeau noted only the United States could take the step, but he would recommend the vehicle.

“This is something that is universal and important, and I of course recognize that different countries will deal with it in different ways,” he said. “But my encouragement that countries should look to examples where some have tackled these issues head on in a thoughtful and respectful way and come out the stronger and the better for it.”

Largely unknown to most U.S. citizens, the United States has a decades-long history with truth and reconciliation commissions, which grew out of the legacy of South African apartheid after the first sprang up in 1995.

The Washington-based Georgetown University held one to confront the Jesuit school’s sale of slaves early in its history, and the state of Maine held its own commission dedicated to its treatment of Native American children, which mirrored that of their Canadian counterparts.

Across the world, other countries like Congo, Colombia, Chile, Canada, Panama and Sierra Leone adopted the South African model to confront their own histories of oppression, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Canada’s grew out of the largest class-action settlement in the country’s history, a reckoning of how the nation’s church- and state-funded residential schools erased the history of some 150,000 children.

Embedded in the final report for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this photo from Saskatchewan archives depicts an indigenous family being separated by the nation’s residential schooling program. (Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board)

The so-called the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began taking effect in 2007, leading to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a year later. That body penned what the Toronto Star called a “damning” 381-page summary of the program two years ago. Trudeau told the United Nations today that Canada’s indigenous children still feel the effects of the institutional racism that it engendered.

“There are, today, children living on reserve in Canada who cannot safely drink, or bathe in, or even play in the water that comes out of their taps,” he noted.

“There are indigenous parents who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away, or take their own lives in the night,” he continued. “Young indigenous people in Canada struggle to get a good education, and though residential schools are thankfully a thing of the past, too many Indigenous youth are still sent away, far from their families, just to get the basic education most Canadians take for granted.”

Amnesty International warned that threats of violence against indigenous women in Canada had grown so frequent and severe as to become a “human rights crisis.”

“That is the legacy of colonialism in Canada,” Trudeau said. “Of a paternalistic Indian Act. Of the forced relocation of Inuit and First Nations communities, and a systematic denial of Metis rights and history. Of residential schools that separated children as young as five years old from their families, punished them for speaking their own language, and sought to extinguish indigenous cultures entirely.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017, as he prepares to deliver his speech on the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (CIA PAK, U.N. PHOTO)

Trudeau’s public airing of his country’s dirty laundry before the world stage puzzled much of the Canadian press, as reporters asked why the prime minister dedicated so much of his U.N. speech toward what they had believed to be a domestic matter.

Insisting that the issue was appropriate for the international body, Trudeau tied that issue to initiatives like the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda, which together with the Paris agreement sets goals for nations around the world to combat climate change.

“I think it’s important particularly reflecting on the sustainable development goals [SDGs] that we also acknowledge what we have to do,” he told a Canadian reporter. “As we look at the SDGs, which apply to every country, if there are things that we are not doing right at home, that we need to take responsibility for.”

Trudeau drew the same connection during his U.N. speech, noting that climate change landed hardest on indigenous and northern Canadians.

“In communities across the north – places like Paulatuk, Kugluktuk, and Tuktoyaktuk – where community members are finding sea ice conditions more dangerous and unpredictable for traveling and hunting in the winter,” he said.

The prime minister added that past impunity left Canada vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy in its human rights efforts.

“When I’ve suggested that certain countries have to do better on their own human rights – on their own internal challenges – the response has been, ‘Well, tell me about the plight of indigenous people in Canada,” he said.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump went before the international peacekeeping body with a far different message, one of patriotism, militarism, and a threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, a nation of 24 million people.

Perhaps displaying Canadian politeness toward a longtime ally, Trudeau danced diplomatically around criticizing Trump’s remarks.

Instead, the prime minister emphasized the importance of de-escalation through “our friends and allies” like the United States, South Korea and Japan and “important partners” like China and Russia to end “North Korea’s reckless behavior, preferably by diplomatic means, including through full support of the U.N. Security Council sanctions.”

As for the topic of his speech, Trudeau noted that the United States could point to its own history should it use the vehicle of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to confront the legacies of slavery and white supremacy.

“I think that’s certainly something for Americans to reflect on and struggle with as Americans have led on in many cases over the last century, whether it’s the civil rights movement, or a strong example of the American Bill of Rights,” he said.

“There are extraordinary things that America has grappled with and overcome in its past, but as my example today in regards Canada certainly highlighted there’s always much more work to do, and there’s always an opportunity to reflect on that path forward that includes all voices and understands that the only way to move forward is together.”

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