Justin Trudeau

Photo by Juil Yoon \ www.uwimprint.ca

Defying all odds just a few months back, Trudeau’s Liberals have swept into power with a majority mandate. During the campaign, they made a series of promises – on the environment, on First Nations’ issues, on water, for instance. Can Trudeau actually live up to these promises?

With the Paris Climate Change negotiations starting at the end of November, many are focused on what the Liberals will do to distinguish themselves on the climate file. At this point, the Prime Minister would simply have to install a few solar panels on 24 Sussex to have a better climate policy than the Harper Years. Which is precisely the worry.

At this point, the Liberals have been just vague enough in their promises to let just about anything happen. Trudeau has promised to attend the Paris talks – he hasn’t stated if would go personally, but there will be a lot of pressure for him to join other world leaders. He’s also promised to host a meeting with Premiers within three months of the Paris talks to flesh out a carbon pricing policy.

And that’s about it. The vagueness leaves an opening big enough for a few jumbo jets, meaning that it will be up to environmental groups and concerned citizens to keep up the pressure for climate action. Sure enough, two major protests are already planned for Ottawa alone during Trudeau’s first month in power, in the lead up to the Paris negotiations.

On the pipeline file, Trudeau did commit to ensuring the National Energy Board, the government agency that approves (and rarely, denies) major pipeline projects and their ilk, would be empowered to consider climate change emissions in their process, something forbidden during the Harper Years. This would add a significant barrier to proposed pipelines like Kinder Morgan and Energy East if these new measures have any teeth.

Trudeau has also pledged to support a tanker ban on the north coast of British Colombia, which would seem to make the Northern Gateway pipeline, already hugely unpopular in the province, a moot project. He had already spoken of his opposition to that project, which was also opposed by the NDP and Greens.

Troublingly, Trudeau has pledged his support for the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, and a few days before he reigned victorious over Harper, his own campaign co-chair was forced to resign after it was revealed that he was also acting as an advisor to TransCanada and soliciting them advice on lobbying the new government. On TransCanada’s other proposed pipeline, Energy East, Trudeau has proved equally hard to pin down, saying only that he would want to await the results of the NEB’s review.

Here again, the rising power of environmental movements may make all the difference, as they’ve already been able to build a strong level of opposition to both Kinder Morgan and Energy East, with even Ontario’s Energy Board saying that Energy East’s risks outweigh any benefits, and community opposition forcing them to abandon plans to build a tanker terminal in endangered beluga habitat in Quebec.

First Nations nationally have been trying to get some traction on resolving the sorry state of water quality in reserves across the country for many, many years. As it currently stands, over 100 First Nations communities are under drinking water advisories, meaning in some places water needs to be boiled, while in other places it’s completely undrinkable.

Trudeau actually managed to distinguish himself on this issue, pledging to deal with the various communities by the end of his first term. While admirable, the real question as with so much in politics comes down to dollars. Simply put, this is an expensive problem – the government itself estimated it would cost nearly $5 billion, or just under the pricing of the Kelowna Accord, negotiated over 18 months with First Nations. We may have to wait until the next budget is released to see if the dollars match common sense.

Also reaching a salient point was the plight of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, with all parties but the Conservatives pledging an inquiry into the issue. Trudeau has already stated that he intends to fulfill this promise, after he has had some time to form a cabinet.

The Liberals also pledged their complete support for all recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which earned them a verbal thrashing from the National Post over the veritable impossibility of their claim.

Unfortunately, the National Post may be right. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing more I would advocate for than the full machinery of the government put to use marching for justice for Indigenous communities. I just don’t think the rest of the country is there.

One of the biggest recommendation calls for the enforcement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In a previous article, I wrote about why Harper and many industries in the country had long opposed this declaration – for its inclusion of a kind of veto for Native communities over projects that would negatively impact their communities.

Many Native communities see this provision as a necessity, and fundamentally similar to recent Supreme Court rulings, but many businesses and governments see it as political and economic anathema that would send this country into chaos. For that reason, Trudeau will find his hands partially tied on implementation, or find himself at war with many industries and Canadians who share their fears.

On-reserve water, missing and murdered women, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission all emerged as major issues for Indigenous movements and voters, who turned out in record numbers to elect a record number of Indigenous MPs (ten). Indigenous groups will be hoping for the best from this new government, but like other movements, will have to be prepared to push back if they find the new government far too like the old. 

Ben Powless is a First Nations citizen with a degree in Human Rights, Native Studies and Environmental Studies from Carleton University. He has worked on climate change, Indigenous rights and tar sands issues with the Indigeneous Environmental Network, Defenders of the Land, Idle No More, Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and Ecology Ottawa.

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