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INAC split a ‘game-changer,’ Bellegarde calls for an independent national treaty commissioner

By Laura Ryckewaert      

AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde says the split is a ‘significant step,’ but he's also calling for the appointment of an independent national treaty commissioner.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, far left, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde, and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett pictured on National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2017, outside the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa during an announcement to turn the space into an Indigenous centre.
The Hill Times file photograph

The splitting up of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is being called a “game-changer” for Indigenous relations in Canada, but former deputy minister Scott Serson says the government should first issue a royal proclamation to define its new relationship with Indigenous peoples.

“They’re saying this is a reflection of an RCAP [Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples] recommendation, but the royal commission put a couple of significant pieces first before making this change,” said Mr. Serson, who was deputy minister of what was then called Indian and Northern Affairs 1995 to 1999, during work on the RCAP, the final report from which came out in 1996.

“They were suggesting the idea of a new royal proclamation, which would describe the principle of this new relationship, and that’s a recommendation that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission picked up on,” Mr. Serson said in an interview.

He said the RCAP report also recommended that legislation be tabled, that’s agreed upon among Indigenous peoples, giving a clear indication of the steps to be taken to move forward.

“You still are going to have the same people working there [in the two, split departments]. As a former deputy, I’m inclined to believe that they’re for the most part good public servants, but what they need is a signal that the direction they’ve been on is changing, that the approach is going to be a genuine partnership approach with Indigenous peoples,” he said.

The federal government released 10 “principles” on achieving a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, posted on the Justice Department’s website in July. But Mr. Serson said he has seen criticism about of a lack of discussion about these principles with Indigenous leadership.

“You know what Indigenous peoples have been through over the last 30 years? A failed Charlottetown Accord, failed Kelowna Accord. I think that they’re looking for a stronger indication,” he said.

The government made public its plan to split the Indigenous and Northern Affairs department (INAC) into two as part of the Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle, where former Indigenous and Northern Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) became Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs minister, and former Health minister Jean Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) become Indigenous Services minister.

Planning is now underway on the split—on how to divide up various programs, budgets, staff, and the like—but once complete, the two ministers will be served by two departments with separate deputy ministers.

As recently reported by The Hill Times, during the transition, current INAC deputy minister Hélène Laurendeau will remain in place and both ministers will be working out of offices at 10 Wellington St. in Gatineau, Que., and will draft an interim agreement to divide departmental responsibilities. In the meantime, Ms. Bennett’s communications director, who is serving both ministers’ in the interim, said “nobody is losing their job.”

The government has indicated that Ms. Philpott will handle health, education, child, family, and housing services, along with efforts to end boil water advisories in First Nations communities and food security. Ms. Bennett, on the other hand, will continue to spearhead the government’s efforts to reach self-governance agreements with communities.

Ms. Bennett will lead roughly six months of consultations with Indigenous stakeholders on how to restructure the government’s approach to Indigenous affairs ahead of the tabling of legislation to dissolve INAC and create two new departments, which could take several more months, as reported by The Hill Times.

In response to questions from The Hill Times last week, Ms. Bennett’s office said the government is taking “the next significant step toward ending the Indian Act,” with a staged “dissolution of INAC,” which requires the signalled legislative amendments. As part of this, two new ministries’ roles have been “immediately created,” which “take on distinct but complementary objectives within the existing legislated structures.”

“Formalization of ministerial titles and responsibilities will be finalized following royal assent of proposed amendments to the Salaries Act, which is currently before Parliament,” said Ms. Bennett’s office.

The 1996 RCAP report made 440 recommendations in all, involving a lot of policy and analytical work, said Mr. Serson. As a result, the department concentrated on recommendations to improve socio-economic conditions and establishing the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, “as a first step,” he said.

While the intention was to return to the more “fundamental and complex issues around restructuring the relationship,” Mr. Serson said the “players changed” and there was a lack of continuing demand from the broader public.

“Other priorities took over in the government, and the government never went back to those more fundamental issues,” he said. “This is why a forward-looking plan is important. … So far we get these bits and pieces, and this announcement of splitting the department looks pretty last minute since we don’t have the mandate letters out even yet.”

With two years until the next federal election, Mr. Serson said timing is a “genuine concern on the part of those of us who are interested in seeing forward progress in this area.”

Liberal MP Don Rusnak (Thunder Bay-Rainy River, Ont.), chair of the Liberal Indigenous Caucus, said recent the move to restructure the government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples is a “game-changer.”

“The 10 principles that were released by the government—guiding the government and the recognition of the rights and self determination of Indigenous peoples that will guide the review of law and policies—it’s going to be the legacy of this government,” he said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has called the splitting up of INAC a “significant step” forward in Crown-Indigenous relations, and in an interview with The Hill Times last week said the newly-named Crown-Indigenous Relations minister is “strong signal” that’s “more reflective” of a nation-to-nation, treaty relationship with the government.

While it will ultimately come down to outcomes, the appointment of a minister focused on improving Indigenous services is a positive change that could “have a meaningful impact on the ground for our people,” he said.

“We all want to move beyond the Indian Act. It’s a very colonial, paternalistic piece of legislation, and by changing the department, it is a signal by government that they want to move along with us as well,” said Mr. Bellegarde, noting though that doing so will happen in phases.

“The most important thing to keep in mind though is that government is now sending the right signals that we have a treaty relationship with the Crown; we don’t have a treaty with the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada,” he said.

Along with reaching new governance agreements with the 634 First Nations in Canada, Mr. Bellegarde said it’s not just the government that needs to move beyond the 140 year-old Indian Act.

“We have to start moving and thinking outside the Indian Act ourselves, thinking outside structures that were set up for us, like tribal councils … like organizing by province and territories,” he said.

Mr. Bellegarde said he has, since the 2015 election, been pressing the government and other federal parties for commitments on recommendations in the AFN’s “Closing the Gap” document, including treaty implementation. He said he found out about the government’s specific plan to split up INAC the day it was made public, on Aug. 28.

Asked whether he’d like to see a royal proclamation made, Mr. Bellegarde noted it was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, all of which the AFN supports.

Beyond that, he said he’d like to see a national treaty commissioner appointed, which would be an unelected, independent officer of Parliament, like the auditor general, to focus and report on progress on treaty implementation. He noted Canada was created through the work of treaty commissioners.

“Where’s our treaty commissioner today?” he said.

Mr. Bellegarde said the government’s consultations need to take place in every province and territories, and “make sure everybody has a seat and a voice.” Ultimately, he said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

“The status quo wasn’t obviously working, so you have to try new, innovative things. This is part of that. Let’s be optimistic and give it a chance,” he said.

In a Sept. 6 piece for Policy Options magazine, Queen’s University political science PhD candidate Veldon Coburn argued it’s “not likely” decolonization will follow a restructured INAC. For one thing, he said, it’s important to consider the context in which the RCAP recommendation to split up INAC was made, namely, at a period in government “that was, arguably, one of its greatest upheaval,” with major departmental restructuring having taken place in 1993.

Mr. Coburn noted that, as explored in Donald Savoie’s Governing from the Centre, increasingly “policy decision and policy direction originate not with the ministers and their deputies,” but with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council. Moreover, he argued the two new ministries “will continue to be enmeshed in the dense colonial machinery of government, changing little, if anything at all.”

“While INAC is commonly believed to be the locus of federal Indigenous policy and programming, the reality is that the machinery of government concerned with Indigenous affairs is dispersed across more than 30 departments,” he wrote.

“The truth is, INAC is just one of many structures that comprise the immense and wide-reaching colonial apparatus for the administration of Indigenous affairs.”

Mi’kmaq lawyer and Ryerson University associate professor Pam Palmater said in an interview Aug. 28 with CBC News that she thinks, with the change, the government has “just doubled the colonial structure,” and raised concerns the split is “more superficiality and less substances.”

Mr. Rusnak said the Liberal Indigenous Caucus has been advocating for “this type of change” since it formed in early 2016, though he learned of the government’s specific plan the day it was announced.

“It’s extremely exciting. This is a game-changer for not only Indigenous communities across the country, but the whole country,” he said, adding he believes broad public support is exists for the change.

“People know that we’ve had a horrible relationship between the federal government and Indigenous communities for far too long, and that that needs to change. Canadians are behind it, and they want to make sure that we get it right also.”

Mr. Rusnak said the caucus is set to discuss how it can feed into the government’s consultation efforts at its next meeting.

“Nothing is set in stone. There’s going to be legislation coming and we don’t want to invent that in Ottawa,” he said.

“The unique position we’re in, we have a lot of connections with not only leadership but the community members that actually live in the communities and are directly affected by the decisions that are made now and as we move forward.”

The Hill Times

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