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Inside the Indigenous Affairs split: ‘nobody is losing their job’ during transition, feds say

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Health Canada could have a big stake in the split, with a huge part of its budget tied to Indigenous health care.

Newly minted Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, left, and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will oversee the dissolution of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department, and the creation of two new ministries to handle Indigenous issues.
The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright

It will likely be a year before the government makes good on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in two, and “nobody is losing their job” while the details are worked out, says a spokesperson for the department’s two ministers.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) will lead a roughly-six month consultation with Indigenous stakeholders to gather feedback on how to split the department and rework the government’s approach to Indigenous affairs. The conclusions drawn from those consultations must then be drafted into legislation to dissolve INAC and introduce the new departments, a process that could take several more months, said James Fitz-Morris, who as of last week was the director of communications to both ministers now working on the Indigenous file.

“Nobody is losing their job” as a result of the planned split in the department while the plans are being drawn up, he said.

However, over time the government’s goal is to reduce the federal staff needed for Indigenous affairs by signing more self-governance agreements with First Nations, which will in turn be responsible for delivering their own services, he said.

Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) split up responsibility for Indigenous issues in an Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle, reassigning now-former health minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) to cover Indigenous services, and Ms. Bennett, who was previously the sole minister responsible for Indigenous and northern affairs, to cover Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs. The prime minister promised to create new departments for each ministerial position: a Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and a Department of Indigenous Services.

Mr. Trudeau explained the decision by telling reporters after the shuffle that “we have pushed the creaky old structures around INAC about as far as they can go, and the great people working at INAC…deserve an updated structure that is much more in keeping with the true nature of reconciliation.”

Hélène Laurendeau will continue to serve as INAC’s lone deputy minister, the top civil servant, while the department plans for the split, said Mr. Fitz-Morris. Ms. Philpott and Ms. Bennett will work out of the same building at 10 Wellington St. in Gatineau, and the two will figure out an interim agreement on who will be responsible for what until the split, and will “speak with one voice” on overlapping issues, he said.

The two departments, once created, will eventually have separate deputy ministers, the prime minister told reporters Aug. 28.

Ms. Bennett’s exempt ministerial staff is currently supporting both ministers, but Ms. Philpott will be recruiting her own exempt staff in the next few weeks, possibly from INAC, Health Canada, or elsewhere, said Mr. Fitz-Morris.

It’s too early to say which divisions in INAC will be shuffled to which new department, though it’s likely that the division responsible for treaty negotiations would eventually go under Ms. Bennett’s department, while the division responsible for infrastructure would be assigned to Ms. Philpott’s department, he said.

INAC includes a Management and Implementation of Agreements and Treaties unit, currently employing about 80 people, and an Infrastructure and Capacity unit, which was planned to account for about 450 full-time jobs in the current fiscal year.

‘Enormous’ potential for bumpy transition: ex-DM

Decisions about how to re-divide the funding, policies, and employees devoted to Indigenous affairs could have a big impact on Health Canada as well as INAC.

Ms. Philpott told reporters last week she expected to handle the delivery of health services, education, work to clean up water on First Nations, food security (including the Nutrition North food-subsidy program currently under review), child and family services, and housing in her new role. Ms. Bennett will handle the government’s work related to its relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, including self-governance agreements.

Health Canada allocated about 73 per cent of its planned budget for 2017-18 (about $3.1-billion of $4.3-billion total), and about 23 per cent of its planned staff (2,083 full-time equivalent positions of a total of 9,261) towards health programs, benefits, and infrastructure for First Nations and Inuit people, according to its departmental plan for this year.

Moving the delivery of Indigenous health services under the responsibility of the Indigenous services minister, instead of the health minister, could eventually hive off enough money into the Indigenous Services Department to give it a budget rivalling national defence, which boasts one of the largest in government—with more than $18-billion planned spending this year—said Harry Swain, who served as deputy minister of what was then the Indian and Northern Affairs Department from 1987 to 1992.

New Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor will oversee a department that currently spends about three-quarters of its budget on Indigenous health programming. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

INAC has planned to spend about $10-billion this year, and employ 4,627 full-time equivalent staff, according to its departmental plan.

The government hasn’t yet determined which health programs or divisions would follow Ms. Philpott from Health Canada to the Department of Indigenous Services, said Mr. Fitz-Morris. For now, they will stay under Health Canada, he said.

Mr. Swain applauded the decision to move all Indigenous health and social services under one department, instead of keeping them in “silos” spread among departments. He said it could make for a much more effective delivery of those services.

However, the logistics of splitting the department will prove a major challenge, said Mr. Swain, who now works as an associate fellow at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies.

“A government which can’t even pay its public servants is now going to change the reporting relationships, and job descriptions, and so on, of thousands of people. The potential for a year or two of just complete balls-up is just enormous, and it’s one of the reasons that we really didn’t pursue this 30 years ago. The transaction costs are enormous, even when you have really good people at the top.”

The federal government has been struggling for more than a year with problems paying public servants that started when it implemented a new pay system, Phoenix, in 2016. Nearly one in two civil servants paid through the system has opened a case file to deal with a Phoenix problem, the CBC reported last month.

The previous Conservative government’s decision to merge the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade with the Canadian International Development Agency in 2013 left the new department grappling with human resource issues, such as how to merge staffs and pay structures for employees of the two organizations. The government struck an outside advisory panel and created a team of bureaucrats to work out the merger, which took months before employees had moved offices and other logistics were settled.

Scott Serson, who served as deputy minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1995 to 1999, said the decision to split the department had “symbolic importance, in that the government is providing a further signal of its direction.”

But, he said, “my concern is that this government has yet to come out with a broader plan” for executing the split and moving towards more self-governance for First Nations, he said.

The government’s political leaders will have to demonstrate a wholesale, sustained commitment to the latter for public servants in INAC and other departments who work on Indigenous issues to fully buy into the change in approach, he said.

It may also require more money, he said, since running two departments is generally more expensive than running one large one.

Mr. Serson now works as a consultant at the First Peoples Group, a firm focused on mediation, conflict resolution, and training related to Indigenous issues. The firm is led by president Guy Freedman, a former provincial and federal public servant who served as an adviser to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and a fifth-generation Métis.

For the government to implement Mr. Trudeau’s promises around Indigenous issues, “the entire civil service will have to really come up to speed the way that some of Trudeau’s ministers and the prime minister himself has stepped up, and understood that the relationship is different,” said Mr. Freedman.

A union representing employees working at INAC, the Union of National Employees (part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada), did not respond by deadline to requests for comment.



INAC divisions in 2017-18

Programs and internal services2017–2018 planned full-time-equivalent positions
Governance and Institutions of Government409
Rights and Interests of Indigenous Peoples254
Management and Implementation of Agreements and Treaties86
Social Development159
First Nations Individual Affairs259
Residential Schools Resolution260
Indigenous Entrepreneurship30
Community Economic Development456
Strategic Partnerships70
Infrastructure and Capacity450
Urban Indigenous Participation13
Northern Governance and People88
Northern Science and Technology45
Northern Land, Resources and Environmental Management230
Internal Services1,518

Source: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s 2017-18 departmental plan

Liberal Indigenous Caucus pushed for INAC retooling ‘almost from our inception’: chair

The Liberal Indigenous Caucus has been advocating for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to be restructured “almost from our inception” said chair Don Rusnak.

The Aug. 28 cabinet shake-up divided the INAC file and created a second minister, a move the nine-member group of Liberal MPs of Indigenous heritage applauded.

Mr. Trudeau called Mr. Rusnak (Thunder Bay-Rainy River, Ont.) before he publicly named Carolyn Bennett as minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs and former health minister Jane Philpott as minister of Indigenous services.

“We’ve been speaking with Minister Bennett quite regularly about the restructuring of INAC and looking at different reports that have been done over the years,” said Mr. Rusnak in an interview last week, referring to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that made the recommendation to split INAC 20 years earlier. The Assembly of First Nations has said it has long advocated for this to happen.

When the Liberal Indigenous Caucus had its conversations with the department, Mr. Rusnak noted it had already been discussing “ways to reform the creaky machinery that is INAC and looking at solutions,” although it was aware staff didn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”

The approach set out in the cabinet shuffle “will accelerate that process of decolonization and getting communities out of the Indian Act,” but he said he wasn’t sure how it would “flesh out” and both the caucus and Liberal Associate Indigenous Caucus (created by the Liberals last fall to include MPs whose ridings have large Indigenous communities) expect to have input.

—By Samantha Wright-Allen

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