Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a major cabinet shuffle on Monday in Ottawa, unveiling plans to dismantle an entire government department in the process.
The Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) portfolio, a top priority for the two-year-old government, is being immediately divvied up into two sections, with an experienced minister at the helm of each. It’s the first step in a process that will eventually see the department — as it currently exists — completely dissolved and replaced.
Former INAC minister Carolyn Bennett will remain in the picture for the time being, becoming the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
Former Health minister Jane Philpott — widely regarded as one of the most effective members of Trudeau’s cabinet — has been moved into a new position as minister of Indigenous Services. She is being replaced in the health portfolio by New Brunswick MP Ginette Petitpas Taylor.
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According to the government, Bennett and Philpott will work in tandem on two separate, but interrelated tracks.
Bennett will, first and foremost, be in charge of consulting with First Nations and figuring out how best to dismantle and restructure INAC for the future. The creation of new departmental structure will require, at minimum, legislative amendments in the House of Commons.
Bennett is also being asked to “accelerate self-government and self-determination agreements” for First Nations and to “develop a framework to advance a recognition of rights approach that will last well beyond this government.”
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Philpott, drawing on her experience as health minister, is expected to focus on more immediate issues linked to First Nations in Canada.
“The new Minister of Indigenous Services will continue the important work of improving the quality of services delivered to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people,” the Prime Minister’s Office explained in a release.
The release also noted that “existing colonial structures” have not allowed the government to create the kind of change it campaigned on in 2015.
The dissolution of INAC, according to both the release and an internal message from the prime minister delivered to departmental employees on Monday, will allow Canada to “shed the administrative structures and legislation that were conceived in another time for a different kind of relationship.”
‘Something needed to be done’
At a press conference outside Rideau Hall on Monday, Trudeau called the changes “very exciting” and “a long time coming” in Canada. National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde issued a statement lauding the “significant steps.”
Philpott, for her part, called it a historic day, adding that INAC’s structure was based on the notion that the government should “dominate” Indigenous Peoples and force assimilation.
“These are seismic shifts in the structures that oversee the relationship that Canada has, as a representative of the Crown, with Indigenous Peoples of the country,” she said.
“We have to move to a new way of working together,” she told reporters. “We hope that we can do more together than we could do on our own.”
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But Indigenous activist Cindy Blackstock said she isn’t celebrating yet. While “something needed to be done” at Indigenous Affairs, she said, the country is still facing major challenges.
“So far we’ve had a lot of symbolism, we haven’t seen a lot of reality in the changes in lives of people,” Blackstock noted.
“On the First Nations child and family service issue, Canada is currently facing four orders to stop racially discriminating against kids issued since 2016 … another order is pending. And just this morning, the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination called Canada’s whole approach alarming.”
Monday’s massive shakeup comes amid a growing list of problems within INAC. In spite of a stated focus on reconciliation and repeated commitments to improve living conditions both on and off reserve, the Trudeau government has faced a number of stumbling blocks.
The long-awaited national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls has seen a string of high-profile resignations, schedule changes and accusations that it has failed to communicate effectively with the public, victims and families. At the moment, Trudeau said, there are no plans to halt the inquiry.
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Wide gaps also remain in health and social outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Boil water advisories are still in place in many First Nations communities, in spite of a Liberal promise to end them and a huge influx of money last year dedicated to that effort.
The still-lengthy and complex road to reconciliation was also highlighted during the country’s 150th birthday celebrations in early July, when a group of Indigenous activists and their supporters arrived on Parliament Hill and were initially prevented from setting up a teepee on the lawn.
A compromise was eventually reached, with the teepee erected near the main stage for the duration of the festivities.