No one prime minister can overturn more than a century of governance mistakes, but the legacy Justin Trudeau is building will make sure that Canadians are invested in the changes that need to happen for true reconciliation.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 8, 2024.
OTTAWA—The beginning of the new year also ushered in the second annual National Ribbon Skirt Day.
The first Ribbon Skirt Day was recognized by Parliament last year to honour Indigenous regalia, including the ribbon dress.
National attention was drawn to the importance of the ribbon dress after Saskatchewan schoolgirl Isabella Kulak was derided for wearing hers to a formal school event in 2020. According to media reports, a staff member told the 10-year-old that what she was wearing was not formal enough for “formal day” at the school in Kamsack.
The school district subsequently issued an apology. To mark the new year, in 2021, Isabella and a group of friends marched into their classrooms wearing ribbon dresses and shirts on the first day of school.
Kulak’s humiliation sparked an outcry and prompted Parliament to recognize National Ribbon Skirt Day on Jan. 4. Some may think this designation is frivolous, but in reality, it underscores the journey taken by Indigenous People over the past decade.
Whatever happens to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the future, he will definitely go down in history as the prime minister who devoted the most political—and financial—capital to reconciliation. I underscore financial because Trudeau is not the first leader to speak out about the challenges facing Indigenous Peoples, whether in urban, rural, or northern areas, but he is certainly the first to invest major cash in the solutions.
We won’t likely see the benefit of his government’s investments immediately. One of the first and little-noticed decisions was the move to increase education funding on reserve so that it matched what was happening in other parts of the country.
Before Trudeau, Indigenous education spending was only about 60 per cent of what was spent on average schooling in Canada. By insisting on parity, Trudeau prompted an increase in the quality of education in territories that will probably not yield results for at least a decade.
The same holds true for boil-water advisories. Previous governments—including my own—worked on a piecemeal basis to solve water issues, but there was never a published target or a focus on a complete end to advisories until Trudeau took office in 2015.
One of the key ways in which Trudeau managed to improve the water situation was his decision to break up the former Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and split it into two different ministries. One ministry is specifically focused on service delivery, while another is working to conclude governance agreements that solidify Crown-Indigenous relations.
By creating two departments and resourcing them, Trudeau has made sure that focus of work does not get stalled on one while officials work on the other.
Adequate running water and properly funded education will not make up for the years of damage done by separating families and underfunding communities. The residential school trauma has been multi-generational, and most Canadians didn’t even know it existed until recently.
The National Ribbon Skirt Day is more than a recognition of one girl’s courage. It is a celebration of culture and heritage that should instill a sense of pride and belonging in Indigenous children who have often been made to feel like second-class citizens in their own country.
No one really knows what kind of policies a Conservative prime minister would introduce to continue the work to overturn deeply rooted and racist governance, but in Pierre Poilievre’s round-the-clock social media postings, you don’t hear much about Indigenous People.
No one prime minister can overturn more than a century of governance mistakes, but the legacy Trudeau is building will make sure that Canadians are invested in the changes that need to happen for true reconciliation.
Most people vote on what is good for them, not necessarily what is good for their fellow citizens. So the work done on reconciliation will not likely yield too much support in the ballot box for the Liberals. But when the history books are written, Trudeau will definitely go down as the prime minister who made the greatest strides in overcoming colonialization and truly delivering on reconciliation.
Kulak—and every other Indigenous student—has reason to be proud of her regalia and her history. It is one of survival. resilience and celebration. In 2024, let’s hope governments continue the journey of reconciliation, in words and deeds.
Indigenous children in schools across the country should never be mocked because of what they are wearing or where they come from.
Instead, they should be celebrated every day.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.