Canada still has an ‘Indian Affairs’ department, 1 year after the government promised change
Canada hasn’t had an “Indian Affairs” minister in the public eye since 2011.
But that title, for both the minister and the department, is still legally on the books as of August 13, and used across government websites.
The most recent case is found in a document pertaining to the assignment of new Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade Minister Dominic Leblanc.
If you think his title is a lot to process, try and process his new assignment.
Leblanc is to “assist the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.”
“Well, who’s that? Where’s that? They don’t even put in brackets the current name,” says former top House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh.
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The minister to which the Leblanc assignment refers is Carolyn Bennett, commonly known as the minister of Crown-Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
There hasn’t been a minister of Indian Affairs since the Stephen Harper government changed the title to minister of aboriginal affairs in 2011. The Trudeau government made another change – minister of Indigenous affairs – in 2015.
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Then in 2017 came the big announcement touting the Liberal government’s focus on Indigenous relations and reconciliation: the department would be split in two, with Bennett responsible for Crown-Indigenous relations and Jane Philpott named the minister of Indigenous services.
But a full year later, nothing has changed legally, and “Indian Affairs” remains the official name.
“It’s taken this time to do the kind of consultation that we needed to do,” Bennett told Global News.
“Not only with Indigenous people, but also within, the departmental officials. But we’re almost ready to go and we’re pretty excited that there will be two new departments.”
Bennett says she is hoping to table the new legislation this fall.
“I’m not impressed,” said Walsh, who calls the name change itself “housekeeping.”
“For technical legal reasons, I understand that, but surely the legislation could have been corrected long before now to avoid this name popping up again.”
“It’s kind of disconcerting,” said Grand Chief Joel Abram of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians.
“It goes to misidentification going all the way back to Columbus and they’re still using the terminology.”
With the term “Indian” in his own organization’s title, Abram acknowledges the difficulties in finding a catch-all everyone is happy with.
“Mostly, we’d rather be called by what we are,” said Abram, who refers to himself as a Haudenosaunee person.
But, he says, the government should stick with their promises. “If that’s what they said they were going to do, then they should probably do it.”
“It’s archaic, that’s for sure,” said New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash.
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“I’m just surprised that we still have that in our legislation. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised that we have that in our legislation — it’s part of our legal and constitutional history. But I think there should be serious moves to getting away from that and use the appropriate 2018 language,” said Saganash, who is the party’s reconciliation critic and a Cree.
“This has to be more than a cosmetic change,” said Bennett of the length of time it has taken to implement the move. “The people that we consulted wanted to make sure we got it right.”
She referenced the long-term plan to eventually shut down the now fledgling Indigenous Services Canada department. The ultimate goal is self-determination, with Indigenous services carried out and controlled by Indigenous governments and institutions.
“That is a really important piece of work to determine those differences and make sure that the right elements end up in both departments in this new legislation,” Bennett said.
“We don’t want any legislation that messes with Aboriginal treaty rights or title, and this is what they’re proposing to do,” said Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
Far beyond a legal name change, Palmater is concerned about what will be in the meat of the legislation.
“So here’s the problem with her concept of consultations. Without talking to anyone, they make this surprise announcement that they’re going to have two departments of Indian Affairs headed by two different ministers,” said Palmater.
“They’ve spent the last year telling First Nations, ‘Yeah we’re doing this, we’re just going to draft the legislation, maybe you’d like to give us some ideas of how we could draft the legislation,’ which makes zero sense because we didn’t even ask for this.”
Palmater points out changes to Indigenous relations legislation was the “subject of huge controversy” at last month’s annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations.
Resolution 39 says the government’s proposed Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework “undermine(s)” Canada-First Nations relations and “sidelines important questions.” It calls for the government to stop the process and immediately convene a meeting with First Nations to discuss the issue.
“I’m not sure that they’re going to be able to meet their target of September for all of these massive legislative changes when they have a resolution from the majority of chiefs saying, ‘No, we’re not going ahead with this,'” Palmater said.
Global News reached out to the Assembly of First Nations but it did not provide any comment for this story.
MP Saganash says while he responded to the prime minister’s February introduction of the framework with 12 points he felt should be included, he added, “I’m not sure where they’re heading with this.”
“I haven’t seen any draft legislation in that respect although the fall is fast approaching,” Saganash told Global News.
As for what’s in a name with the longstanding and still-existent Indian Affairs title, Palmater says, as a Mi’qmak person, she doesn’t get offended by what people choose to call her.
“It’s the intention behind it,” Palmater says.
“People want to have a conversation about what’s happening to First Nations or Indians or native people or Indigenous… I think that’s the important part.”
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