Speaking in front of representatives of indigenous communities from across Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised "nothing less than a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and First Nations Peoples."
Trudeau stepped out before a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Quebec, on Tuesday, welcoming the congregation in a half-dozen different Aboriginal languages.
But while Trudeau reiterated five campaign promises, aimed at rebooting that strained relationship, his government wasn't ready to commit to reforming the legislation that governs Ottawa's relationship with many Aboriginals across the country — the Indian Act.
Of those commitments that the government did make on Tuesday, all five were met with raucous applause from the regional chiefs.
The most immediate was the commitment to launch an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women that will aim to address the root causes, societal factors, government failings, and general circumstances that have contributed to, as Trudeau phrased it on Tuesday morning, that "national tragedy" of violence against indigenous women.
Meetings with families of women who have been killed, or who have gone missing, will begin as soon as Friday.
The government heeded calls from various indigenous people and organizations to hold off on the inquiry itself until enough stakeholders have had a chance to offer their input. Those consultations could take months, as the government tries to design the specifics of the inquiry, which will be launched some time in the next two years.
Carolyn Bennett, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, promised that the government will take "as long as it takes to get it right."
Aboriginal women in Canada are six times more likely to be the victim of murder than non-Aboriginal Canadians, according to Statistics Canada. Given that Aboriginal men are even more likely to be murdered than non-Aboriginal men, calls have also been made to expand the inquiry for all Aboriginals, not just women.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents many urban-dwelling indigenuous people, called the inquiry a "bold step," with National Chief Dwight Dorey adding that The plight of our 1,200 grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, cousins and friends has been ignored for far too long,"
Trudeau also promised "significant" new investment in education for First Nations communities — a figure, if Trudeau sticks to his platform, which will total over $500 millionin additional funding per year.
He also vowed to fulfill all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While Trudeau has already promised to fulfill some of the committee's recommendations, like increasing education funding, some — such as creating a statutory holiday to commemorate those who survived abuse at state-run residential schools, and re-writing the Canadian oath of citizenship to incorporate recognition of indigenous peoples — might prove more trickier to adopt.
One commitment that was immediately met with a standing ovation from the chiefs was a pledge to remove the cap that currently prevents the government from increasing funds for band councils' budgets by more than two percent per year.
"It hasn't kept up with the demographic realities of your communities, nor the actual costs of program delivery," Trudeau told the assembly.
While the other promises made by Trudeau had already been addressed during the campaign, the prime minister offered a new commitment to the chiefs on Tuesday: to abolish laws adopted by the previous government that could hurt First Peoples.
"We will conduct a full review of the legislation unilaterally imposed on indigenous peoples by the previous government," Trudeau said. "Where measures are found to be in conflict with your rights, where they are inconsistent with the principles of good governance, or where they simply make no public policy sense, we will rescind them."
We will conduct a full review of the legislation unilaterally imposed on indigenous peoples by the previous government.
That promise, however, does not extend to the much-maligned piece of legislation that lays the groundwork for Ottawa's relationship with indigenous communities — the Indian Act.
The Indian Act, which is nearly 140 years old, originally banned traditional religious and cultural practises, denied Aboriginals the right to vote, and restricted various types of trade with non-Aboriginals, amongst a host of other things.
The Indian Act has been amended extensively to remove many of its features, but it still governs how First Nations reserves elect their band councils, provide reserves with tax-exempt status, and ultimately vests financial decision-making in the hands of the Canadian government.
Asked on Tuesday whether the government would be open to repealing the legislation, Bennett said "absolutely."
Bennett, alongside Minister for the Status of Women Patty Hajdu and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, announced the first details of the government's inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.
Wilson-Raybould, speaking specifically about the inquiry, said the Indian Act may come into play.
"It is a topic that could be the subject of discussion," said Wilson-Raybould. "And not to presuppose the topics of the inquiry, but certainly we will be listening to the families, we will be listening to national Aboriginal organizations, and many others to look at how we can get to the root causes of poverty and marginalization, and certainly the governing structures on First Nations communities have something to do with that."
But many First Nations are still divided about the best course of action. There is no consensus as to whether the law can be fixed, overhauled, replaced, or — as some conservative-minded academics and commentators have suggested — simply repealed, along with the entire reserve system.
The law applies to First Nations — so-called 'status Indians' — and not to Canada's Metis or Inuit communities.
Speaking on Tuesday, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde said that Canada has to "move beyond" the Indian Act. And he isn't the first.
When the Liberal Government of the day in 2002 amended the legislation, the Assembly of First Nations slammed the changes as idle tinkering.
"The Indian Act is a racist document. Why should we build on a racist document?" Then-National Chief Matthew Coon Come told the CBC.
One of Coon Come successors' in the job, Shawn Atleo, summed up the Indian Act in an op-ed for the Toronto Star in 2010.
"The Indian Act controls us from cradle to grave. When we are born, the act lets the government decide who is and is not an Indian. When we die, the act gives the government control over our wills and estates. In fact, it gives the government power over pretty much everything in between. It allowed the government to apprehend our children and place them in residential schools. It holds our political and economic development hostage to an ever-growing and burdensome bureaucracy at Indian Affairs," Atleo wrote.
The most recent pushes for reform was in 2012, when Conservative Member of Parliament Rob Clarke introduced legislation to repeal certain aspects of the bill and to commit the government to adopt a plan to eliminate the Indian Act altogether. The bill requires Bennett, as the minister responsible, to report to Parliament on the progress being made to abolish the bill early in 2016.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper — the man whose legacy that Trudeau is trying to undo — said in 2012 that repealing the act needs to be done, but needs to be carefully. "That tree has deep roots," he said. "Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole."
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling
Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press