In a move the federal government says is designed to eventually get rid of the Indian Act, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is being replaced by two new departments.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Aug. 28 that Carolyn Bennett, previously Minister of INAC, is now Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, while Jane Philpott, previously Minister of Health, is now Minister of Indigenous Services.
“Without more detailed information, it is unclear what these changes will mean for Inuit,” stated Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed in a news release.
“However, I welcome today’s acknowledgement that the federal government must do better when it comes to policy, programs and services for Inuit and all Indigenous peoples. I am hopeful that the new direction will result in improved communication with Inuit and responsiveness to Inuit needs and priorities.”
Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna welcomes more focus dedicated to the North.
“Like all interested parties, we anxiously await detail on how this change impacts Nunavut,” Taptuna said.
Bennett will lead consultations on how to dissolve INAC, which, according to the government’s Main Estimates for 2017-2018, has an operating budget of more than $10 billion and a staff of 4,627.
“The issue is we’ve gone as far as we can under the present structure,” Bennett later said in a televised interview.
“I think people shouldn’t think the department is just being split in half. We’re actually dissolving what was a patriarchal, colonial structure and trying to move to a new system that is about stopping just delivering programs and moving to creating Indigenous-led governments and Indigenous-led institutions.”
Bennett is also tasked with “better whole-of-government coordination on our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationships, to accelerate self-government and self-determination agreements based on new policies, laws and operational practices, and to develop a framework to advance a recognition-of-rights approach that will last well beyond this government,” according the federal government’s statement.
Philpott’s new job will be to improve the quality of services for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.
“A rigorous results and delivery approach will be adopted, focused on improving outcomes for Indigenous peoples. Over time, one fundamental measure of success will be that appropriate programs and services will be increasingly delivered, not by the Government of Canada, but instead by Indigenous peoples as they move to self-government,” according to the government’s statement.
Other changes could include consolidating all services to Indigenous people, such as health, under Philpott’s purview.
Obed said Philpott has worked closely with ITK.
“She has demonstrated a keen understanding of what it means to work in partnership with Indigenous peoples, and I look forward to engaging with her more closely in her new role as Minister of Indigenous Services, alongside Carolyn Bennett in her new role as Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs,” he said.
The government cited the final report the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples published in 1996 as inspiration for the creation of new structures to bolster its relationship with the country’s Indigenous people.
“We agree with the Royal Commission that rights recognition must be an imperative, and that is why today we are announcing the dissolution of INAC … What we are doing today is also a next step toward ending the Indian Act, but the pace of transition will also require the leadership of Indigenous communities themselves.”
The dissolution of INAC will require legislative amendments. In addition, formalization of ministerial titles and responsibilities will be finalized following royal assent of proposed amendments to the Salaries Act, which is currently before Parliament, the statement reads.
The federal government also said its two-pronged vision for Indigenous Canadians is “closing the socioeconomic gap between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians, and making foundational changes to our laws, policies and operational practices based on the recognition of rights to advance self-determination and self-government.”
Trudeau sent a personal letter to INAC staff.
“We need to shed the administrative structures and legislation that were conceived in another time for a different kind of relationship,” he wrote. “The moment is upon us to work with even more focus with Indigenous peoples and our provincial and territorial partners toward making our national journey of reconciliation a reality.”
Other changes to cabinet included appointing Kent Hehr as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Carla Qualtrough as Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Ginette Petitpas Taylor as Minister of Health, and Seamus O’Regan as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.