‘Because It’s 2015’: 9 Stories of Indigenous Triumph in Canada This Year

Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS / The most diverse cabinet in Canadian history bode well for First Nations, Métis and Inuit as newly sworn in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal Party had swept Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives from power, appointed two indigenous people to his cabinet and vowed to reset the

‘Because It’s 2015’: 9 Stories of Indigenous Triumph in Canada This Year

In 2015, what Indigenous Peoples in Canada had sought for years finally came to pass: A government willing to work with them and “reset the relationship,” a phrase that had become almost a mantra. It was a year that saw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s validating pronouncement that residential schools constituted “cultural genocide”; the unseating of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, and the convening of a national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women by newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also reached out to Indigenous People in an unprecedented fashion.

‘Lab Rats’

The news wasn’t all good, of course. The year kicked off with the revelation that children ripped away from their parents during the boarding school era in Canada were not only subject to starvation in the name of nutrition experiments, but were also tested for extrasensory perception, or ESP. Fifty children between ages 6 and 20 were the subjects of the series of tests at the Indian Residential School in Brandon, Manitoba, during the 1940s, according to research that came out in January.

Photo: Library and Archives of Canada, via Washington Post / Brandon Residential School, 1946

Behind Bars: The Pedophile Priest

In February, so-called Pedophile Priest Eric Dejaeger was sentenced to 19 years, minus eight years for time served, for the sexual abuse of more than two dozen Inuit children during the 1970s and ’80s. Now 67, DeJaeger had been found guilty the previous September on “24 counts of indecent assault, one of unlawful confinement, two of buggery, three of unlawful sexual intercourse, one of sexual assault and one of bestiality,” CBC News described at the time. He victimized at least 10 girls and 13 boys by luring, threatening or assaulting them.

“He was a wolf masquerading as a good shepherd,” Justice Robert Kilpatrick said. “His life as a priest was a lie.”

Photo: Chris Windeyer/The Canadian Press / Former Priest Eric Dejaeger, put away for a long time for sexual abuse of Inuit children.

Foreshadowing: Oil Sands Province Tilts Left

The province of Alberta, home of the notorious oil sands, shocked everyone in May by electing the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). The win ended a 44-year reign by the Conservatives and made Rachel Notely, NDP Party leader in Alberta, the premier. She tightened environmental regulations and oversight.

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‘Cultural Genocide’

In June the words “cultural genocide” were officially used to describe what happened to First Nations, Inuit and Métis during the residential schools era, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report. The commission also put forth 94 recommendations for setting things right that were endorsed by the premiers of each province.

Photo: Mary Annette Pember / Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presents the panel's final report on residential schools, calling them “cultural genocide.”

Pipeline Spill

July saw the largest pipeline spill in Canada’s history, when 1.3 million gallons of emulsion—a mixture of bitumen, water and sand—leaked south of Fort McMurray in the Alberta oil sands. Nexen Energy, owned by the Chinese oil and gas company CNOOC, apologized for the spill, which was discovered by a contractor rather than by supposedly fail-safe, state-of-the-art detection equipment, then admitted that the spill could have been under way for two weeks before being noticed. The result was two Olympic-sized swimming pools of muck, or about the area of two football fields.

Photo: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press / Nexen Energy officials apologized for a pipeline rupture that sent 1.3 million gallons of emulsion into the muskeg

Ahousaht Heroes

Ahousaht First Nation members were at the forefront of rescue efforts when a whale-watching boat capsized off the Vancouver Island town of Tofino on October 25, killing five and leaving one person missing. Ahousaht fishermen plucked nearly two dozen people from the oily water, equipped with little more than jackets and sweaters to cover the stricken, chilled passengers, and with no medical equipment to speak of. Afterward the Nuu-chah-nulth, of which Ahousaht is a part, requested that emergency equipment and training be provided to First Nations whose members ply the waters.

Photo: Albert Titian/Facebook / Photo of Leviathan II, which capsized off the Vancouver Island town of Tofino, British Columbia. Members of the Ahousaht First Nation were immediately on scene on Sunday October 25 and helped rescue 21 passengers.

Harper Unseated

Also in October, Trudeau’s Liberal Party took the majority in federal elections. The new Prime Minister promised to respect indigenous rights and honor treaties, then promptly named Jody Wilson-Raybould, former regional chief of the AFN and one of a record 10 indigenous candidates elected to Parliament, as Justice Minister and Attorney General. Trudeau also appointed Inuit Hunter Tootoo as Fisheries and Oceans Minister. When asked why his government was the most diverse in Canadian history, Trudeau simply replied, “Because it’s 2015.”

Campaign Promises, Making History

Trudeau’s promises to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples hinged on reconciliation, compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. After being sworn in, he outlined as much to Carolyn Bennett, his new minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, telling her to reset the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government. He made inroads to that himself by including indigenous representatives in the country’s delegation to the COP21 climate summit in Paris, where his speech invoked traditional knowledge and its potential for helping address climate change. A week later he made history by addressing the Assembly of First Nations national gathering in early December, the first sitting leader to do so.

Photo: Facebook/Liberal Party Canada / Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde at the COP21 climate talks in Paris.

At Long Last: Murdered and Missing Women Inquiry

The call to establish a national inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal women was finally answered when Trudeau took office. In December he announced the inquiry would go forward and begin by meeting with victims’ families before consulting with experts, aboriginal organizations and lower levels of government to design and focus the inquiry before its full launch in 2016.

Photo: CBC News / Left, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould lay out their plans on how the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women will proceed.

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