Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press
National Chief Perry Bellegarde gave Justin Trudeau sweetgrass and a canoe when the then-candidate addressed the annual Assembly of First Nations gathering in Montreal on July 7, 2015. Trudeau promised to improve the relationship between the federal government and aboriginal people.

Indigenous Leaders Look to Justin Trudeau for Adherence to 'Obama Style' Campaign Promises

Cara McKenna

Indigenous people are holding Canada’s new prime minister to account on a host of ambitious “Obama style” campaign promises around rights and reconciliation.

A number of aboriginal leaders have reminded Justin Trudeau that their expectations are high since the Liberal leader was elected on October 19. Some added that indigenous communities’ trust must be rebuilt after a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he hopes to sit down with Trudeau before he announces his cabinet on November 4. Bellegarde told APTN that he wants to see funding in the April 1 federal budget go toward First Nations education and training, on-reserve housing, access to bottled water, addressing high suicide rates and getting children out of foster care.

“We’re going to keep putting the new prime minister’s feet to the fire in terms of expectations,” he said. “It’s going to be a more respectful relationship, a more co-operative relationship.”

Trudeau told the AFNs’ annual general assembly in July that a Liberal government would conduct a full review of existing legislation imposed on aboriginals—vowing to rescind measures that are in conflict with either constitutional rights or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Bill C-51 is an excellent example,” he said at the time about the Conservatives’ controversial anti-terror bill, which Trudeau backed when it was adopted by Parliament. “While we support the security measures in this bill, we are committed to repairing and repealing the sections that are cause for so much concern.”

The law is controversial among First Nations, Inuit and Métis people because of its potential to subject their activities to increased surveillance, something they were already battling without the law.

RELATED: Documents Show Government Monitoring of Aboriginal Groups

Trudeau also said his government would endeavor to resolve grievances with current historical treaties and land-claims agreements, and promised to launch an inquiry into Canada’s epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. In addition he pledged to meet all 94 extensive recommendations in the report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) earlier this year around the country’s legacy of residential schools.

RELATED: 'Cultural Genocide,' Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

AFN Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard was one of numerous leaders who issued statements after Trudeau was elected, reminding him of his promises.

“We are ready to work and to start a new nation-to-nation relationship with this new government. However, trust has to be rebuilt,” he said. “It is essential that the new prime minister respects the commitments he made in his electoral platform and that he rectifies the extremely poor conditions that the last ten years have left.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs also declared that the Liberals “must meet or surpass the great expectations created by their sunny, Obama-style promises.”

Métis National Council president Clément Chartier, B.C. AFN Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson and Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day also announced great hopes for Canada’s new government, as did Inuit leaders such as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) President Cathy Towtongie.

“I encourage Prime Minister-Designate Trudeau to be open and receptive to working with Inuit and NTI, and I look forward to developing a positive working relationship with him,” Towtongie said in a statement. “When NTI met with Mr. Trudeau earlier this year, we found him to be receptive to working with Inuit to ensure our respective land claims and issues are given priority in his government.”

She and other indigenous leaders emphasized the importance of convening an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, something that Trudeau promised to do within the first 100 days of his administration.

“I am particularly pleased to learn that he has listened to Canadians and will call for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada,” Towtongie said. “An inquiry is a necessary and critical step in improving the way Canada treats Indigenous women and crimes against Indigenous women.”

Métis National Council President Clément Chartier, left, poses with Liberal Party Leader and Prime Minister Designate Justin Trudeau. (Photo: via Métis National Council)

“I am full of hope today,” said Chartier in a statement. “After a lost ten years, the Métis Nation now has an opportunity to engage with the new government on a nation-to-nation, government-to-government, distinctions-based approach in the pursuit of Métis rights, recognition and self-determination. I was impressed by the depth of Justin Trudeau’s commitments during the campaign and am confident that as Prime Minister, he will press forward with us to achieve real change.”

While expressing relief and optimism, the leaders said that resetting the relationship between the government and Indigenous Peoples would not be easy.

“There will be difficult work ahead. There are great damages to repair after a decade of lost progress,” said Day. “However, I am hopeful that [this] is the beginning of a new era in Canada—one where Indian status will no longer be a barrier to health care, education or economic opportunity.”

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