As much of the country heralded the Trudeau government’s first federal budget as a positive step toward getting Canada’s economy back on track, Simeon Tshakapesh looked around him and couldn’t shake the feelings of skepticism and despair.
Tshakapesh, a 48-year-old husband and father of five and the current Deputy Grand Chief of the Innu Nation, has repeatedly shone a light on the poor living conditions, the ravages of youth addiction, and general poverty experienced by the people of Mushuau First Nation, also known as Natuashish. The province’s northernmost First Nation reserve, Natuashish was established in 2002 after the government relocated the Innu of Davis Inlet to the mainland.
Houses are overcrowded and in disrepair, many infested with mould. Residents often don’t have access to clean drinking water. Despite some improvements in recent years, addiction and substance abuse, intimate partner and family violence, and youth suicide are still prevalent. And despite the fact the Innu make up less than half of one percent of Newfoundland and Labrador’s population, Innu children account for 20 percent of children in protective custody in the province.
While the relocation to Natuashish offered a lot of hope and temporary relief for his people, Tshakapesh says the federal government “just walked away after.”
And he doesn’t feel the latest federal budget, despite the Liberals’ promise to foster nation to nation relationships with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, will change much in his community, or in Sheshatshiu, Labrador’s other Innu reserve.
“The mould is killing us, the mould problem is really killing us. These homes are not adequate homes we live in today. They may have running water — that’s about it,” he said, explaining the water system in Natuashish is often contaminated with salt water.
In addition to the health problems Tshakapesh says are a result of the “flourishing” mould in people’s homes, he is adamant the removal of Innu children from their homes, communities and culture must end too.
“The amount of the spending that’s going to be needed on child welfare matters [is huge], like improving child welfare services in Labrador,” he said. “The government has not met the needs of the Innu children in Labrador.”
Tshakapesh says he would like to see adequate on-reserve infrastructure, supports and services for both children and adults in the Innu communities so that families don’t have to be broken up and individuals don’t have to be separated from their communities and culture.
But he also knows that, like other First Nations across Canada, the needs are so great that it’s not likely the Trudeau government can live up to its promises, which includes implementing all 94 recommendations of last year’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report.
“The budget is not going to meet the needs of the rest of the country,” he says. “We’re not alone. But the Innu people in Labrador is gonna be left out in the cold again for the next four years, and I’m disappointed to say that.”
Promises fall short
Following the March 22 budget announcement, prominent Indigenous rights advocates expressed disappointment and anger over what they say amounts to the Trudeau government’s failure to live up to its election promises.
Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and Associate Professor and Chair of Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance in Toronto, said the federal budget saw Trudeau’s promises to Indigenous Peoples in Canada “evaporate into thin air only to be replaced by an under-funded program and service agenda,” she wrote on her blog, Indigenous Nationhood.
Palmater noted that more than $3 billion of the budget’s promised $8.4 billion to First Nations is back-ended to be spent in the fiscal period following the Liberals’ four-year mandate, which means the money is not guaranteed. She also noted the funds committed in the budget are woefully inadequate relative to what is needed.
“Today is a very difficult day for many Canadians,” she wrote. “They are being asked to celebrate a budget which is being promoted as ‘historic’ not just by Trudeau and the majority of journalists and commentators in mainstream media, but even by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde.”
Following the budget announcement Bellegarde released a statement saying the budget “begins to address decades of underfunding and neglect, which have perpetuated a growing gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians.
“This budget invests in important priorities for First Nations and all Canadians,” he continued. “Investments in housing, clean water, education, and child welfare will bring long-needed relief for those living in third world conditions, and build a stronger economy for everyone.”
In 2007 the AFN and First Nations and Family Caring Society filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging the federal government provides less support for First Nations children living on-reserve than other children in Canada.
Earlier this year the Human Rights Tribunal ruled in agreement, stating the federal government’s funding and management of First Nations child and family services “resulted in denials of services and created various adverse impacts of many First Nations children and families living on reserves.”
The ruling orders the Canadian government to “cease the discriminatory practice and take measures to redress and prevent it.”
At the time Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission Marie-Claude Landry said the tribunal’s “historic decision could have a profound impact on how the Government of Canada funds other on-reserve programs and services.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society and the woman behind the human rights complaint, told APTN News the Trudeau government’s first budget “falls far short” of meeting the TRC report’s calls to action on reforming the child welfare system, and that it “doesn’t provide a clear pathway as to how they are going to achieve that within the confines of the [Canadian Human Rights Tribunal] order.”
Colonialism not just a thing of the past
Residential schools, forced evacuation of traditional lands, low-level fighter jet training over communities and hunting territory, and the flooding of sacred burial grounds to make way for large scale hydroelectric development may all be things of the past, but the vicious cycle of systemic violence persists in the Labrador Innu Nation, where most families struggle with the consequences of intergenerational trauma and centuries of efforts by settlers and colonial governments to separate the Innu from their culture, way of life, and identity.
But colonialism lives on alongside the consequences of its lengthy existence in Nitissinan (the Innu-aimun name for their land) and manifests in new ways in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, says Tshakapesh.
“Colonialism has been destroying our way of life,” he said, naming the inadequacy of the child welfare system for Innu children. “They’re sending kids away, out of province. That’s ‘killing the Indian in the child: their culture, their beliefs, their spirituality and their language,” he continued, referencing the residential schools’ infamous mandate.
“Somebody is taking away their dignity, and that’s what I see. History is repeating itself. Today Child, Youth and Family Services is taking our kids out of the province. It’s just like another form of incarceration. And as soon as the kids turn 16, [CYFS] are no longer responsible for that child. And sometimes we end up with kids taking their own lives because they have lost so many years with their families, and they lost their language.”
Tshakapesh said the Trudeau government’s commitments to First Nations are a “good plan” but that he will believe the change when he sees it.
Colonialism has been destroying our way of life. They’re sending kids away, out of province. — Simeon Tshakapesh
“It’s fine when you write something on paper, but actually implement what you promise,” he said. “And I strongly believe that the Liberals are trying to do their best, but I think they have failed the Innu people in Labrador.
“It’s very nice of the prime ministers or premiers, or health ministers to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’ — but where is it?”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report has been called one of the most important documents in Canadian history. The commission formed in 2007 out of a class action lawsuit against Canada on behalf of the survivors and victims of residential schools. Over six years the commission, led by Justice Murray Sinclair, interviewed thousands of residential school survivors across the country.
The report culminates in 94 calls to action which outline the necessary steps that federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as religious, educational and other institutions, must take to work toward reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.
Prime Minister Trudeau has committed to enacting the calls to action that fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction, while in Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball has vowed the same regarding those directed at the provinces.
Among the actions is the call for all levels of government to “fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] as the framework for reconciliation.”
The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 and outlines “the rights [that] constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.”
Ball told The Independent last November that the provincial government’s responsibility to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador is “based on those recommendations [of the TRC report].”
When the Liberals won the provincial election the following week the new premier appointed himself as Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs.
In his mandate letter, Ball wrote that he “will work with Aboriginal people and governments…in concert with the federal government, to ensure development decisions are made with openness, transparency and accountability, incorporating the concerns and interests of Aboriginal communities. I will lead the implementation of the calls to action set out in the interim report of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission which are applicable to the provincial government.”
The provincial government oversees child welfare in the province, but Tshakapesh says the
“policies that they have in Newfoundland don’t seem to apply to Aboriginal kids [in Labrador] — they don’t get the same services as the rest of the society, or non-Aboriginal children.
“Right now the needs of the Innu children — they need some kind of treatment here, the ones that are involved in the system. The parents also [need] support,” he said.
In January the Child Welfare League of Canada (CWLC) issued a report funded by the Innu Round Table Secretariat outlining the child welfare needs of the children in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu. In consultation with community members, families and Innu leaders the report highlights what an Innu Prevention Approach to child welfare would look like, and 10 recommendations to move forward on it.
In the report the CWLC says the Innu Prevention Approach—a culturally sensitive strategy based on Innu values—is “inevitable” in light of the “strong commitment and strategic focus from the community, leadership, provincial and federal representatives who support a prevention mandate,” but that there is “significant work ahead to be done by the stakeholders involved.”
The Independent requested interviews with Labrador MP Yvonne Jones and Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee for this story, but neither responded by deadline.