Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced he is preparing for a significant shift in his government’s handling of the Indigenous Affairs file — a plan designed to lead to the dissolution of the department itself.
As part of a small cabinet shuffle Monday, Trudeau announced that Carolyn Bennett — the minister in charge of the Indigenous Affairs Department since the fall of 2015 — will tag team efforts on the complex file along with former health minister Jane Philpott.
Bennett’s focus will be on the Crown’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples — a key priority for the Trudeau government since coming to power — while Philpott will tackle Indigenous services, including the need to address long-term boil water advisories, First Nations education and housing.
The eventual creation of two separate ministries to replace the existing department will involve legislation, Trudeau said, noting Bennett’s work over the last two years has brought his government to the point where it can explore changes.
“There is a sense that we have pushed the creaky old structures around INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) about as far as they can go,” Trudeau said as he stood outside Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence.
“Being able to have ministers like Carolyn and Jane in charge of moving forward in substantive ways that will demonstrate Canadians’ commitment to reconciliation is something that is very exciting.”
The federal government is also taking steps to move beyond the Indian Act, Trudeau added, pointing to a 141-year old statute that has been widely criticized by Indigenous leaders.
“It is a story that is about decolonizing,” Bennett said Monday. ”It is about getting rid of the paternalism and being able to understand that we have to move to a new way of working together. It is … about us stopping delivering government programs and begin to build Indigenous-led institutions and Indigenous-led governments.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called Trudeau’s announcement Monday a “positive step” for Indigenous People and their relationship with the Crown, saying the decision will allow communities to exert their jurisdiction over territories and rights.
He also said he hopes the bureaucracy will be able to find new ways of doing business now that Philpott will take over this aspect of the file.
“We’ve always said the bureaucracy is really colonial and outdated and everything is done the same old way,” he said in an interview.
“I believe this government is listening and they’ve reacted in restructuring in such a manner that I think it is going to have impact for our people … I would say it should allow for greater progress.”
Metis National Council President Clement Chartier also praised the federal government on Monday, saying he was alerted of the decision personally in a Monday morning phone call from the prime minister.
“You have two, I believe, well-placed ministers that are serious about what they’ve been tasked with,” he said. “I think in this way, progress can, in fact, be made. I think it is a proactive, positive step that the government is taking.”
NDP Indigenous affairs critic Romeo Saganash interpreted the announcement differently, saying that splitting the Indigenous-related files is an “acknowledgment that the Liberal government has so far failed to comprehensively address the formidable challenges Indigenous communities face.”
“The long-standing injustices cannot be addressed by any symbolic change and I reiterate the NDP’s call on the Liberal government to comply with legal orders to end discrimination of First Nations kids,” he said in a statement.
The Conservatives declined to comment on the cabinet shuffle for Indigenous Affairs.