Indigenous leaders across Canada expressed their support and gratitude to Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie for placing indigenous issues in the spotlight during the band's nationally televised concert Saturday, and for applying public pressure to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take action.
Mr. Downie, who announced in May that he has incurable brain cancer, told the audience that Mr. Trudeau "cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore."
"It's going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there but it isn't cool, and everybody knows that. It's really, really bad. But we're going to figure it out. You're going to figure it out," Mr. Downie told the live audience in Kingston, Ont., and the millions watching and listening live on CBC. He said Mr. Trudeau "is going to take us where we need to go," and that "We've got the guy to do it, to start, to help." Mr. Trudeau, who was in the audience, could be seen on camera nodding as Mr. Downie spoke and appearing to mouth the words, "Thank you."
Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of Northern Manitoba's MKO First Nations, said she was moved to tears by the way Mr. Downie chose a moment of maximum public exposure to stand with indigenous people.
"The words were very simple but the gesture was huge," she said. "I hope they don't fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. We need to use his words as a call to action, to respect each other," said Ms. North Wilson.
"I hope it placed even more pressure on the Prime Minister to make good on the promises and the kind words that he has said about indigenous people, and about that being the most important relationship to repair."
Ms. North Wilson said she's discussing ideas with other chiefs across the country about how to honour Mr. Downie's gesture.
"There's a lot of ideas floating around about an honouring ceremony for him, possibly giving him a headdress, making him an honorary chief, blanketing him, hosting a pow wow in his honour," she said. "He needs to get a resounding message from indigenous people that we appreciate him standing with [us]."
Mr. Downie's words were particularly welcome after a difficult few weeks when attention was focused on the tragic killing of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan and the outpouring of racist comments on social media that prompted the province's premier, Brad Wall, to publicly call for it to stop.
Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of Northern Ontario's Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said that Mr. Downie had visited some of the communities that he represents, including playing a concert in Fort Albany, and recording a song named for Attawapiskat, a First Nations community on James Bay.
"His comments about the inequities and the injustices especially in the north are very much welcomed," Mr. Fiddler said. "Especially during this time when there's a lot of talk about reconciliation and healing of relationships with First Nations and the mainstream society. In order for us to move forward, we need to move forward together, so I think the timing of his comments was perfect."
Russ Diabo, publisher of the First Nations strategic bulletin, said that such comments from a well-known and respected Canadian put pressure not only on Mr. Trudeau but on the government bureaucracy. He added that most people don't understand the complexity of indigenous issues, but until Canada addresses the fundamental issues in the colonial relationship, First Nations people will continue to live with the symptoms of colonization, such as the epidemic of murdered and missing women.
"That's where the poverty comes from, it comes from the dispossession of lands and resources and everybody being put on reserves that are for the most part just big enough for residential purposes but not economic purposes. They're too small to have an economic base to develop an economy, and that leads to the fiscal dependency on Ottawa," Mr. Diabo said.
The chief of Saskatchewan's Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations also issued a statement thanking Mr. Downie.
"Mr. Downie is right, there is much work to do to improve the lives of indigenous people, but with his support and bringing these issues to the forefront for Canadians, more people will take the time to learn the true history of Canada. Our inherent and treaty rights are at the heart and soul of the issues that concern indigenous people," said FSIN chief Bobby Cameron.