Canada is enjoying a renewed sense of global prominence as it gears up to celebrate its 150th anniversary but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday the legacy of a mistreatment of Indigenous people may be part of the festivities.
As Trudeau and Canada geared up for Canada Day festivities on Saturday, complete with fireworks and visits by Prince Charles and Bono, a group of Indigenous activists set up a teepee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to protest the celebration.
Police attempted to prevent the protest and arrested nine activists on Thursday before allowing the Indigenous tent to go up just steps from Trudeau's office.
Aboriginal groups have complained for months that the 150th party glosses over historic abuses against them, even as Trudeau acknowledges the government's historic failure to improve its relationship with them.
"It is important that even as Canadians celebrate Canada 150 we reflect upon the experiences and the importance of folding in and hearing the stories and experiences of Indigenous Canadians," Trudeau said as reporters asked him about the teepee protest.
"We recognize that over the past decades, generations, indeed centuries, Canada has failed Indigenous peoples ... I can understand the impatience from many people," he said.
Trudeau came to power in 2015 pledging to fix the government's relationship with 1.4 million aboriginals, who make up about 4 percent of the country's population, but two years later many accuse the prime minister of not doing enough to help impoverished communities.
"It's mostly just photo ops. He's not really doing anything with these issues at hand," said Paul Francis, 23, a member of the Mi'kmaq Warrior Society from Elsipogtog First Nation, who traveled from New Brunswick to join the protest.
Canada attempted to force assimilation through residential schooling and other repressive policies, and aboriginals have higher levels of poverty, addiction and incarceration, as well as a shorter life expectancy, than other Canadians.
Many aboriginal communities do not have access to safe drinking water, and suicides have plagued several isolated communities in recent months.
"If we can afford a C$500 million birthday party we can afford equality for kids," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Her group has lobbied the government for years to comply with Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings that found inadequate government funding for children's services.
Blackstock said Trudeau's lack of action has been profoundly disappointing.
"History will not look back at this period and judge Canadian society very well," she said.