Trudeau announces Indigenous Affairs shake-up to mixed reviews

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In an unexpected move, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced August 28 that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is being divided into two sections by self-governing and non-self-governing First Nations communities, effectively replacing the current model.

Former health minister Jane Philpot will head the non-self-governing department, now called Indigenous Services, while Carolyn Bennett’s title has shifted to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and will continue her relationship with the Crees of Eeyou Istchee.

At the press conference announcing the shuffle, Trudeau said he was “very excited about this meaningful next step [towards reconciliation].” A press release that followed outlined “existing colonial structures” as a hindrance to achieving election promises to Indigenous peoples by Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Media outlets were quick to hail the move as something that could transform Canada’s relationship with First Nations. The Indigenous community, however, was divided.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a tweet that the division is “a positive step for First Nations’ relationships with the Crown.” But a wave of criticism followed as well.

“Certainly, one Indian Affairs is bad enough,” said Indigenous activist and lawyer Pamela Palmater in a radio interview with Canada Talks on Sirius XM Canada. “The thought of two is an absolute nightmare… as if the needs of First Nations could be split so neatly between right to consultation and social programs.”

Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees, was less severe in his criticism. “Anytime you divide a ministry, you’re duplicating some levels of bureaucracy,” he said.

“You need something more comprehensive,” Namagoose added. “Cindy Blackstock is talking about a cost estimate of what it would take to bring First Nations people up to par with the rest of Canada. From there you create a plan and a budget. That’s what how you bring people out of poverty. Doing legalistic and symbolic things won’t get you there and that’s what the Crees have proven.”

Namagoose believes real change will only begin to happen when the government prioritizes concrete priorities. “The biggest issue facing Indigenous people is living conditions. Dividing the department doesn’t address that,” Namagoose told the Nation.

And while he agreed that the goal for First Nations should be self-governance, he also cautioned that some aren’t there yet. “Nations like the Mohawk and Eeyou Cree don’t need any help,” said Namagoose. “But you cannot be self-governing if you don’t have the financial resources to sustain a community.”

He notes that some First Nations in Canada talk about their sovereignty but won’t get into incremental, concrete negotiations as the Cree engaged in over a number of decades.

“It’s all or nothing for them,” Namagoose observed. “The Crees have sovereignty, but that’s not our end goal. The most important issue is our people and the viability of our communities.”

According to INAC there are over 630 First Nations communities in Canada representing more than 50 nations. As of 2017, Canada has signed 27 self-government agreements covering 67 Indigenous communities (62 First Nations, five Inuit) – the nine Cree communities of Eeyou Istchee are included in that total.


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