JUSTIN Trudeau’s solution to ages of dense, top-down governance of Canada’s complex Indigenous file is to double the bureaucracy. What? Is splitting the existing federal department in two really the best way to speed up solutions to hundreds of longstanding problems and outstanding complaints? Maybe.
Ottawa veteran Carolyn Bennett takes over at the new Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs department to tackle nearly 100 outstanding land claims while working to dismantle the Indian Act while Jane Philpott moves from Health to the new Indigenous Services ministry to oversee programs for status Indians like housing and education.
It is Bennett’s plan to begin to tear down the Indian Act that holds the most promise and presents the biggest challenge. It has been tried before.
Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, assigned his young Indian Affairs minister, Jean Chretien to prepare for native self-government nearly 50 years ago. Chretien’s forward-thinking white paper (truly an unfortunate term) proposed ending the Indian Act with generous compensation for treaty rights and considerable funding for education and training so that eventually their lives would parallel those of all other Canadians with all of the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship.
The response, however, was not what the government expected. “Indian leaders saw the attempt to abolish their special status (and the reserve system) not as an invitation to take their place in the Canadian mainstream but as blueprint for assimilation,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. Trudeau’s philosophy that all minorities, Aboriginals included, should be equal under the law lay in tatters and the plan was withdrawn.
Chretien eventually made his own way to the prime minister’s office and tried again. In 2002 his Indian Affairs minister, Kenora MP Robert Nault, drafted the First Nations Governance Act that took a more direct aim at the mix of power, privilege and poverty on reserves. The plan, which counted on widespread grassroots support, sought to clean up reserve finances and force chiefs and band councils to become more accountable to band members.
Then national chief Matthew Coon Come was livid. He called the plan simply an extension of the “racist Indian Act” and said the reforms were hatched without proper consultation. Nault summed up his reaction to Maclean’s: “He’s a lobbyist. His role is to lobby on behalf of the chiefs, and there are a number of chiefs who prefer the status quo.” Nault’s plan, formulated from practical experience in his First Nations-dominated riding, was dead in the water; Coon Come and the other chiefs made continuation politically impossible and this plan too was withdrawn.
Bennett and Philpott could do a lot worse than consulting with Nault, again the Liberal MP for Kenora, in trying to a build common-sense change of course for Canada’s relations with its Indigenous Peoples. A new course means ending the old way of doing things. Will vested interests hold sway again or this time, will the majority voices of average Indigenous people be heard and respected?
The Indian Act, which dates from 1876, doesn’t even provide a clear definition of band powers. And so interpreting it has led to myriad different band governance models. Getting rid of it is essential; determining what will take its place is a task of immense proportions. Maybe that’s what Trudeau has in mind — giving Philpott the day-to-day management of Indigenous Affairs while Bennett works her goodwill to chart a whole new path on which all Canadians, including all Indigenous Canadians, can walk together in a new spirit of peace and mutual respect. Here’s hoping.