Government vows to end Indian Act
OTTAWA—News that the federal government had finally followed a recommendation contained in the now 20-year-old Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), then known as Indian and Northern Affairs, into two ministries has been met with mixed reaction, but the government has also vowed to soon end the tenure of the racist Indian Act.
“There’s a sense that we’ve pushed the creaky old structures at INAC as far as they can go,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in announcing the changes to the department, part of a cabinet shuffle that saw other changes around the cabinet table leading into the resumption of Parliament following the summer break.
Former INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett will now be overseeing Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Ms. Bennett will be tasked with settling nearly 100 long delayed comprehensive land claims, clearing a backlog of grievances at the Specific Claims Tribunal and ensuring that a new era of self-governance is underway. Minister Bennett will also lead the government’s continued push to dismantle the Indian Act.
Minister Bennett is fresh off negotiating the recently ratified Anishinabek Education System deal with the Anishinabek Nation. That devolution to First Nations takes the form the federal government hopes to replicate with other jurisdictions.
“My job is to make sure there’s a whole of government approach,” said Minister Bennett following the announcement. “The ultimate goal is self-determination.”
“We’ve got a backlog of land claims, we’ve got treaty rights,” said a cautiously optimistic Regional Chiefs of Ontario Chief Isadore Day. “We need to chart a path that looks at more self determination, self government and I think that’s the value in setting up another part of the ministry that will deal with Crown relations. Today signals that this is the beginning of dismantling the Indian Act and I hope that’s where this continues to go.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was also positive on the changes, going on to say that doing away with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is a truly significant step “toward restoring and revitalizing the nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Crown.”
Close to home, the Anishinaabek chiefs representing the Robinson Huron Treaty and its 30,000 beneficiaries in Northern Ontario commended Prime Minister Trudeau “for announcing structural changes to the outdated colonial Indian Affairs structure” in a release, but they also pointed to a “huge disconnect between what the federal government is saying and what it is doing about treaty rights and reconciliation.”
Chief Day also noted the disconnect. “It has a lot to do with consultation, engagement, recognition of rights, and jurisdiction,” he said. “The federal government is going to have to do a lot more than splitting a ministry to address these issues.” But overall, Chief Day hopes the government moves help set the country on a path towards reconciliation. “I hope this is the beginning of dismantling the Indian Act,” he said. “This process will have to include First Nations participation, our engagement and our endorsement as to how the federal government moves on these major shifts.”
Former Health Minister Jane Philpott will now lead the new Indigenous Services ministry. That ministry will oversee programs for status Indians, including welfare, education, child and family services, housing, long-term water advisories and health care.
“We’re undoing generations of dysfunctional and discriminatory structures,” said Minister Philpott. “We don’t want to pretend that this is going to be done overnight.”
In an ambitious move, Prime Minister Trudeau has committed to new legislation in the near term to formally begin the process of splitting INAC, a ministry that currently contains more than 4,500 employees spread across the country with a budget in excess of $9 billion.
Prime Minister Trudeau was faced with the need for a cabinet shuffle following the resignation of long-time Liberal MP Judy Foote. Ms. Foote resigned as minister of Public Services and Procurement. As part of the shuffle the former Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough, will now be taking on the Health helm.
Ms. Foote’s resignation carved a Newfoundland and Labrador hole in the Liberal cabinet, which Prime Minister Trudeau plugged by promoting rookie MP (and long-time friend) Seamus O’Regan to the veterans affairs portfolio, replacing MP Kent Hehr who now resides at Sport and Persons with Disabilities.