OTTAWA — He was ripped from his family as a child and placed in a residential school. He survived abuse at the school and later went on to become a lifelong advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
And now, Matthew Coon Come is becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada.
But don’t expect Coon Come to wax poetic about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or his oft-repeated commitment to renew the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
“I’m not too fond of his leadership. I think they’re too preoccupied with stuff that doesn’t really count,” Coon Come said in an interview this week.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric, a lot of trust that is broken.”
Coon Come isn’t the only Order of Canada recipient this year who remains openly critical of the government.
Beverley Jacobs, an Indigenous activist who was an early voice in sounding the alarm about missing and murdered Indigenous women, said she couldn’t believe she was even chosen for the honour. “I was actually quite shocked because I’m always so critical of Canada and its government.”
Other outspoken critics of government are also on the 2018 list. Cindy Blackstock has battled Ottawa for more than a decade over aboriginal child welfare, while former auditor general Sheila Fraser recently reviewed and found fault with the way the RCMP deals with sexual harassment complaints.
The Order of Canada is a welcome acknowledgment of the often thankless work of political and social advocacy, Jacobs said. But it’s not going to keep her from being critical of the government when such criticism is called for.
In particular, she said, it won’t divert her from standing in opposition to a number of government policies and decisions she believes fly in the face of Indigenous rights — most notably the controversial and divisive Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
“There are decisions that the Trudeau government is making that are intruding on the rights of Indigenous peoples and their lands and their territories … he has to change his decision (on the pipeline),” Jacobs said.
“I respect (the award), of course, but it’s not going to stop me from fighting for my people.”
Coon Come was thoughtful when asked about how he feels about the award itself, reflecting on his environmental work and leadership of the Cree people of northern Quebec, which has earned him national and international recognition.
In the end, any success he has achieved was due to a willingness to challenge the status quo and to accept change, he said. There’s a lesson there for Indigenous Peoples as they continue their fight for recognition of rights and reconciliation, he added.
“I think the government needs to go back to the Indigenous communities and involve the members and the community representatives and look at community projects that will benefit the people, and also to implement the treaties or the modern land claims agreements,” Coon Come said.
“I always believed that sometimes in order to build or to plant, you must dismantle, uproot, tear down those structures and do things you’ve never done before.”
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Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press