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King & Palmater critique the Trudeau government doubling the INAC colonial structure

Hayden King, Pam Palmater

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s move to split the Indigenous and Northern Affairs department into two ministries is being greeted by Indigenous activists with skepticism and concern that it’s spin over substance.

The Ottawa Citizen reports, “Incumbent Indigenous affairs minister Carolyn Bennett remains responsible for treaty rights — her new title is Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs — while former health minister Jane Philpott is taking on a new portfolio, Indigenous Services. …Bennett is mandated to help oversee a consultation process on the department’s dissolution. Philpott is charged with helping improve the quality of services with a ‘rigorous results and delivery approach’. Mandate letters will be released publicly in the next few weeks.”

Ryerson University professor Hayden King (who is from the Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing in Ontario) says creating two ministries could mean, “Another layer of bureaucracy, twice as much obfuscation. What we want to see is less of this sort of paternalism that already exists, not to see it multiplied.”

While the recommendation for two ministries comes out of the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, King notes, “One of the things [the commission] suggested was required before restructuring of the department was a new royal proclamation, something in legislation, that allow communities to hold the federal government accountable for their promises. And we haven’t seen that yet. And it appears the government continues to have a very narrow interpretation of treaties, a very narrow interpretation of Aboriginal rights in the constitution.”

King highlights, “Unless those things fundamentally shift, then we might end up with two departments of Indian Affairs rather than the one very problematic existing department and of course that means twice the headache.”

And Ryerson University professor Pam Palmater (who is from the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick) says, “One has to wonder if this isn’t more superficiality and less substance because there seems to be a lot of name changes and terminology changes and announcements out of this government, but when they have an opportunity to make real substantive change, like fund kids in care or transfer lands or address treaty rights, they simply don’t do it.”

Palmater highlights, “Minister Philpott was responsible for Inuit-First Nations health branch, which falls under Health Canada, that didn’t address suicides, that chronically underfunds health programs, that didn’t implement Jordan’s Principle, and now she’s going to be in charge of other Indian affairs social programs for First Nations, that certainly doesn’t bode well. [And] Minister Bennett hasn’t acted on gender discrimination in the Indian Act, hasn’t implemented any of the court cases which have upheld our rights over the past couple years, and she’s going to be in charge of consultations about that, so we’ve yet to hear what the actual plan is going to be versus just this announcement of a change.”

She concludes, “They’ve just doubled the colonial structure. They, amongst themselves, have decided how they want to move forward and they decided that two is better than one when it comes to Indian affairs. I don’t see how this is a decolonization process or it wouldn’t be such a surprise to the majority of First Nations across the country.”

The Trudeau government’s announcement came on the same day that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed “alarm” that despite rulings by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal “less money is reportedly provided for child and family services to Indigenous children than in other communities and that this gap continues to grow”.

The UN panel also said that the construction of the Site C dam on Treaty 8 territory in British Columbia should be halted and that a full review should be conducted in collaboration with Indigenous peoples to “identify alternatives to irreversible destruction of Indigenous lands”. The panel highlighted that construction of the dam began “despite vigorous opposition of Indigenous Peoples affected by this project, which will result in irreversible damage due to flooding of their lands, leading to elimination of plant medicines, wildlife, sacred lands and gravesites”.

And the UN panel called on the Trudeau government to “develop a concrete action plan” to implement the 94 recommendations from the December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.