Ātea

Trudeau’s lesson for Ardern: Inspiring words are not enough

Hope and rhetoric are a great tonic but it’s time to act, writes columnist Graham Cameron.

At the United Nations in late September, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an impassioned speech about the historical abuses of Canada’s First Nations, stating that “for Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”

When asked about why he choose to focus on domestic issues rather than the pressing international humanitarian and political crises of the day, Trudeau’s response was that Canada is willing to deal with the complexities at home as well as abroad.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that his inspiring rhetoric is leading to real change for First Nations. Indigenous children in Canada who live on reservations receive less funding than those who are off reservation but despite a legal order, the Canadian government has not righted the discrimination. In another instance, the government opposed compensation for the 16,000 people caught up in the Sixties Scoop (their version of Australia’s Stolen Generation).

Even when they have taken action, it has disappointed many. For example, most of the CAN$634 million promised for child welfare in the government’s 2016 budget won’t flow until 2020. All the while, First Nations who managed to retain their own lands are forced into unenviable positions. Their land is sought after by mineral, forestry, hydro and oil companies; the years of negotiations with the government have forced those tribes into debt. But as a pre-condition for compensation, tribes are forced to extinguish their rights to nine out of every 10 parcels of their land.

The major gap between rhetoric and action is the grim reality that the Canadian government needs First Nations land to access primary resources to keep the economic engine ticking over. Tribes’ rights restrict the building of planned pipelines, dams and fracked gas terminals that are worth approximately CAN$650 billion to the government over the next decade.

From afar, Trudeau strikes me as a good person with excellent relationship and communication skills and a strong personal sense of justice. His cabinet seems diverse, talented and committed. Their inability to translate all those personal skills that into government action is a salient lesson for tāngata whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I am thrilled to see a cabinet with 13 ministers who have Māori and Pacific Island heritage. I was proud to show my tamariki the eight ministers who were sworn in at Government House in te reo Māori. As my wife commented, “It feels like something is different now.”

I love communication. I love the effect it has on people. Good communication is often intended to move people, to effect their emotions and to inspire new ideas. However, good communication is not the same as good action. The challenge before our new prime minister and her fresh Cabinet is to bridge the gap.

There’s plenty for tāngata whenua to anticipate in this coalition government:

  • The $1 billion regional development fund. Iwi are large and innovative business players in many regions, so will be expecting to partner and lead initiatives from this fund;
  • A re-established Forestry Service with enormous forest planting schemes. Iwi are big players in this space and many Māori work in the industry;
  • the potential for Andrew Little supported by Nanaia Mahuta and Kelvin Davis to be a circuit breaker that allows Ngāpuhi to achieve an enduring settlement;
  • a stepped increase in the minimum wage to $20 by 2021;
  • an increase in the number of te reo Māori teachers as a step to te reo Māori becoming a core subject;
  • an increase in health funding, particularly mental health and youth access, both areas of poor outcomes for Māori; and
  • Kiwibuild and a Housing Commission to address the chronic homelessness and house prices.

In addition, it is the largest Māori caucus that we have ever had in a government. We’ve even got the first Māori woman Minister of Māori Development.

But after one week, of course the desperate needs are still here for tāngata whenua. I’ve a cousin lying on our marae. He smoked his whole life, got a cancer diagnosis, didn’t get a specialist appointment early enough and so any intervention was marginal. He chose to just manage his pain. I know taiohi in our community doing a roaring trade in marijuana. I know a Māori couple trying to figure out how to give away one of their two casual contract, minimum wage jobs to stay home to care for their child. I know a wahine with six children who just got told her landlord wants her out in a month because he wants to move into the house.

Hope and rhetoric are just the tonic we needed after nine dark years of prioritising the economy over people. But hope and rhetoric are not going to transform the lives at my marae or in my community. For that, the rhetoric needs to give way to integrity and tangible action.

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