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‘It has a terrible history,’ Indigenous Affairs needs to go in order for reconciliation to happen, says Liberal MP

By Chelsea Nash      

The department governing aboriginal affairs was founded on the premise of 'the destruction of indigenous peoples,' says Robert-Falcon Ouellette.

The Liberal backbencher is also pushing a private member's bill to hold the government to account for its commitment to implementation of the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette says the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs may have to be rebuilt entirely if reconciliation is to happen.

The MP from Winnipeg Centre, Man. said he thinks the history of the department that was responsible for many years for the marginalization of indigenous people runs too deep, and that for the culture to truly change, an entirely new department, staffed with as many indigenous people as possible, ought to be created.

Mr. Ouellette, who served in the military in his youth, compared changing government culture on indigenous rights to the changing of military culture to recognize human rights.

“In 1996, we had huge issues surrounding harassment and human rights [in the military],” he said. “We had a managerial system that was completely broken. I was told when I joined the military that I did not have human rights.”

Mr. Ouellette’s father was a mix of Cree and Métis. His mother emigrated from Britain as a child.

Military culture is finally changing after two decades, Mr. Ouellette said, referencing the more strict measures put in place to prevent harassment within the Armed Forces.

The long journey to cultural change is why the Liberal backbencher thinks Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada ought to be done away with as a department.

“Are we able to modify that culture within that department? Frankly, I’m not convinced we are,” he said.

Mr. Ouellette said the government should “really try and build another department,” which would aim for 100 per cent new hires who are indigenous, and “who understand the issues.”

The reason the department has a problematic culture, he said is “1867.”

“They have been a department [where] their entire goal has been the destruction of indigenous peoples. They were responsible for the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. It has a terrible history, that department. … The words, the actions, the thoughts of the past, maintain themselves into the present and into the future of that department. Culture is something that is very hard to undo.”

He said changing the culture within government is part of a “holistic” approach to the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Holding the government to account on UNDRIP

Mr. Ouellette introduced a private member’s bill on Dec. 14, C-332, demanding the government be held accountable on its commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I think every government needs to be held to account in implementing UNDRIP,” the MP said. “At the end of the day, this is something our government is committed to, but in 10 years, when there’s a new government, I think this should still be going on.”

The current Liberal government has been criticized for its lack of tangible commitment to the UN declaration that it officially adopted this past spring. 

Private members’ bills rarely become adopted into law.

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) announced to the United Nations in May that the government intended “nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.”

But since then, the implementation portion of the commitment has been questioned. One the biggest critics of the government’s commitment to UNDRIP has been NDP MP Romeo Saganash (Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Que.).

Mr. Saganash, who is his party’s critic for intergovernmental aboriginal affairs, has introduced his own private member’s bill, C-262, “to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony” with the UN declaration.

When introducing the bill in the House of Commons, Mr. Saganash said, “a central component of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action is to use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.” He said his bill would provide the legislative framework for a “long overdue” national reconciliation.

After Mr. Ouellette introduced his bill, Mr. Saganash criticized it on Twitter. An individual under the username “Leah ProudLakota” tweeted at Mr. Ouellette saying his bill was something that was already covered within Mr. Saganash’s. “R U reducing his Bill to 1 article?” she wrote.

Mr. Saganash responded: “Good [question]. But even then, his PMB is so poorly drafted. What is he up to?”

The Hill Times could not reach Mr. Saganash for comment.

In Mr. Saganash’s bill, he does indeed call upon the minister of Indian and Northern Development to submit a report to each house of Parliament every year including and between 2017 and 2037, on a national action plan for reconciliation, and “all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

When asked for his thoughts on the government’s progress on the implementation of UNDRIP, Mr. Ouellette said “we’re getting there.”

“I think we’re starting to move down the right path,” he said, pointing to an announcement Thursday from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), flanked by leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Métis Nation.

The prime minister committed to a yearly meeting with First Nations leaders, as well as a $10-million grant to the Truth and Reconciliation Centre at the University of Manitoba, and the creation of a national council for reconciliation.   

“There’s a lot of things we could be doing to improve it, but it’s starting,” he said. “Like anyone, I wish we could move faster.”

The office of Minister Bennett said it was reviewing Mr. Ouellette’s bill. It did not respond to questions asking for a response to his proposal to get rid of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Mr. Ouellette’s bill says a report on the declaration should be tabled every year within 15 sitting days of June 2. That day is specifically outlined for a reason, he said.

“June 2 would place us around June 21, or June 22. June 21 is National Aboriginal Day. It’s a wink and a nod that you celebrate, and then a couple days later, here’s our report,” he said.

cnash@hilltimes.com

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