Might be time for Trudeau to bring on an Indigenous Elders’ Circle to provide advice

Hill Times October 11, 2021

On Sept. 29, the prime minister gave a particularly good speech on Parliament Hill in a special ceremony to honour the children lost at residential schools and survivors. And I still admit to feeling some cynicism. Would the words be linked to action? How long until that lack of action makes its mark again on the lives of Indigenous Canadians? Now, some say cynicism always finds its own evidence.

But it was shocking to find that evidence not 12 hours later. It was deplorable to witness his words followed by him skipping the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. Skipping out like a student trying to evade his teacher, his office went so far as to mislead Canadians that he was still in Ottawa.

First, the PMO misled the public, sometimes also called lying. Second, so did Trudeau when he admitted it was a mistake. His decision to not attend any Reconciliation Day events was not a “mistake,” it was a decision. We don’t know if it was his decision or a joint decision between him and the PMO. But the part where the Prime Minister’s Office released an itinerary that they must have known was not true, well, herein lies a serious problem.

It might have been a calculated decision that Indigenous issues are only just a public relations question and Canadians won’t care. It does certainly fit the pattern of words-and-more-words paired with superficial performative action. The prime minister’s statement of regret (not an apology) also carried a certain tone of insincerity.

It is perhaps this cynic’s perspective alone. I mean, it really has been more than two years since he was caught out doing something this stupid, the blackface affairs. That was September 2020. Just a couple months after he apologized for his involvement in the WE scandal in July 2020. It could be this cynic’s lone perspective that perhaps apologies don’t prevent future scandal. Perhaps the Canadian tolerance for accepting apology is just misplaced here? We do tend to accept apology and toss any consequence, it’s a Canadian cultural thing.

But it’s nothing like the cultural mores regarding apologies within Indigenous cultures. Indigenous peoples have codified ways of making amends for wrongdoing with the goal to protect community. Uncles, Elders and clan mothers take on roles and lead processes that are thousands of years old. Almost all wrongdoing can be fixed as long as the individual is sincere and authentic. Elder Woody Morrison once shared that in our communities the only unforgivable act is the repeated abuse of women and girls as that risks the very soul of the community.

With this context in mind, it is Earth-shaking that Indigenous peoples across Canada have shunned this statement of regret by Trudeau.

It might be time for the prime minster to bring on an Indigenous Elders’ Circle to provide advice, a structure which supersedes his office, as Elders don’t report to anybody. With a First Nations Elder, an Inuit Elder and a Métis Elder operating in a Circle, it might bring some humility into the office, a longer-term perspective than just the next amazing announcement. It would be an incredible opportunity for any leader to learn from Elders about leadership, about balance, about making decisions with the land and the seven generations in mind.

An honest warning that an Elders’ Circle probably wouldn’t tolerate any government or PMO action for the sake of the camera, or performative action. Or skipping out on important leadership events. Or avoiding a leader’s responsibilities to build relationships with citizens including Indigenous peoples. Or fighting in court against Indigenous children receiving equitable health and social services.

An Elders’ Circle might bring help build that trust which has been broken.