FORT QU’APPELLE, Sask. – Cheering supporters greeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrived in Saskatchewan for what First Nations leaders described as a historic meeting that heralds a sign of change. Trudeau held a private meeting Tuesday evening with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council in Fort Qu’Appelle, about 75 kilometres northeast of Regina.
Trudeau said he’s working on helping the relationship between First Nations people and the federal government.
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“I don’t want to pretend that any of us have the answers to the challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada, but what I will tell you is that as a country, we can build those answers,” Trudeau said after the meeting.
“We can not turn our collective back on the problems. It’s not enough to be outraged by the headlines, the stories of heartbreak and hopelessness that come out of communities like La Loche, Attawapiskat and Natuashish and so many more.”
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The northern Saskatchewan village of La Loche was rocked Jan. 22 when a teenage boy allegedly shot and killed two brothers before going to the high school, where a teacher and a teacher’s aide were killed and seven others wounded.
Trudeau visited the community a week after the shooting and promised that the federal government would be there for the people of La Loche for years to come.
Natuashish, an Innu community in Labrador, has been the scene of a massive search effort for a missing teenager while a state of emergency was declared on Ontario’s Attawapiskat First Nation because of a string of suicide attempts among young people.
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The prime minister did not make any new announcements in Fort Qu’Appelle on Tuesday, but noted the federal budget’s announcement of investments in education, housing, health care facilities and clean drinking water.
He said the government is taking significant steps to renew the relationship in an open and respectful way and to take concrete actions.
File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council chairman Edmund Bellegarde said he believes Trudeau.
“This is the first sign that we have a true commitment, that we have a meaningful conversation, that we have a meaningful relationship,” said Bellegarde.
He said no other prime minister has sat down for a conversation with the tribal council, and the very action of Trudeau listening to the tribal concerns is a change 140 years in the works.
“This is historic. This is reshaping the relationship. This is adding respect,” Bellegarde said. “This is recognizing the indigenous peoples of this country have a role to play in the constitutional framework, but also in the public policy that needs to change, where it impacts our people.”
Trudeau is scheduled to meet with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall on Wednesday, where he may face a tougher audience.
Wall wants to talk about the gap between on-reserve and off-reserve education funding, support for pipelines and expanding employment insurance benefits.
The premier has praised extensions to EI coverage for 12 areas hit hard by the resource downturn, including northern Saskatchewan. But he’s also said the federal government made a mistake when it didn’t include workers in southern Saskatchewan’s oil producing regions in those changes.
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The federal budget added five weeks to the regular 45 weeks of EI benefits, effective in July and retroactive to January 2015. Long-tenured workers will also be eligible for an extra 20 weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 70 weeks.
Trudeau said he has “an excellent working relationship with every premier, particularly Premier Wall.”
“My approach is always to be respectful and collaborative,” said Trudeau.
“Brad and I have issues that we agree deeply on, other issues that we’re still working out, but … I have had nothing but positive, respectful conversations with Premier Wall about how best to serve the people of Saskatchewan and indeed, the people of this country.”