Prime minister Justin Trudeau has found himself in hot water for crassly generalizing Indigenous communities and their needs.
Trudeau suggested at consecutive town halls in Saskatoon and Winnipeg that Chiefs want youth centers and TVs for children, but that he has spoken with Indigenous youth directly and knows what they really want is “a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land.”
Last week, NDP MP Romeo Saganash wrote a bitingly sarcastic letter in reply to Trudeau, saying that as a Cree man who grew up near the water, “who am I to argue with your recent comments that you know best for Indigenous youth facing so many critical issues including a suicide epidemic.”
Notable in all this is how consistent Justin Trudeau’s remarks are with views expressed by his father 73 years ago.
There is a lineage from father to son, from one Liberal prime minister to the next, of condescension toward Indigenous communities and exploitation of lands and waters for pleasure and profit.
But Indigenous communities are pushing back and asserting their sovereignty.
From Father to Son
Pierre Elliot Trudeau wrote a short 1944 essay titled “Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe.”
Ascetic is a practice of self-discipline and abstention from indulgence, particularly for religious reasons.
Pierre Trudeau was known for his voyages on canoes and his buckskin jacket became famous.
All these years later, Justin Trudeau arrived for a sunrise ritual on National Aboriginal Day wearing his father’s buckskin jacket and a pair of moccasins.
He then joined a group of youth on a traditional voyageur canoe to paddle along the Ottawa River. These canoes were used during the fur trade to help colonize what is now Canada.
The symbolic weight of these events is important.
Pierre Trudeau tried to abolish “Indian” as a distinct legal status with his 1969 White Paper while expanding resource and extraction infrastructure in Canada, and now his son is wearing his father’s jacket while expanding pipelines despite widespread Indigenous opposition.
Struggle against Nature
The manner in which Pierre and his son Justin relate to the land and waters is important.
In opening his essay on canoeing, Pierre Trudeau writes that “I would not know how to instill a taste for adventure in those who have not acquired it. I would like to point out to these people a type of labour from which they are certain to profit: an expedition by canoe.”
The language of expedition and profiting from nature are deeply ingrained in a Canadian mythos. The thrill of exploration and venturing into the wilderness has been a theme since early explorers arrived on Indigenous lands.
Pierre Trudeau goes on to write that the “primary role” of the human mind “has been to sustain the body in the struggle against a powerful universe.”
We are not to live harmoniously with—and within—a powerful universe. We are to struggle against it.
This is also a consistent theme in Canadian literature and politics: the battle between human life and nature. Conquering nature rather than living harmoniously with it.
Fabulous & Undeveloped Mines
“What fabulous and undeveloped mines are to be found in nature, friendship and oneself! The paddler has no choice but to draw everything from them,” writes Pierre Trudeau in his essay.
And his son follows his wishes, drawing profit from the earth. Building new pipelines and
fostering the development of new mines and tar sands centres in order to “draw everything from them.”
Nature is a place for pleasure, and a resource for profit.
Pierre Trudeau closes his essay writing that, “I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it.”
The colonizer finds his patriotism in the land.
Activities like canoeing and hiking have become an expression of national pride—of what makes Canada great.
This is a consistent theme in any advertising by provincial and federal travel agencies, celebrating the vastness of Canada and instilling patriotism through the land.
Indigenous Sovereignty & Struggle
Then, as now, Indigenous communities are resisting and asserting their sovereignty.
Indigenous communities organized against Pierre Trudeau’s White Paper with Harrold Cardinal calling it “a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.” The White Paper was struck down and only in 2014 did the Liberals apologize.
More recently, Justin Trudeau is now “continuing the proud Liberal tradition of betraying Indigenous peoples,” writes Russell Diabo, by refusing the need to receive free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous communities for things like pipelines and resource extraction.
And once again, Indigenous communities are organizing and asserting their sovereignty through legal channels, blockades, direct action and mass movements.
“Our people have already started the work for our next generation,” write Hayden King and Tanya Kappo. “There must be hope for them, and they must be protected from the brutal and tyrannical consequences of colonization.”
Thank you James Wilt for feedback on this piece. Views and opinions are my own.