National Post

It’s not immediately clear why anyone believes breaking up one huge, moribund department will immediately create two thriving, energetic branches of government

It’s 2017 and two years into a Liberal government. Not surprisingly, post ministerial shuffle, the federal cabinet is still youthful and gender balanced but now it’s even bigger – more departments and a bulging 31 members.

The most momentous change announced by Justin Trudeau was the decision to blow up the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and replace it with two new ministries (Carolyn Bennett’s Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to consult with native groups; and Jane Philpott’s Indigenous Service to focus on service delivery).

“To put it plainly, the level of ambition of this government cannot be achieved through existing colonial structures,” the government said in a release.

The Liberals heralded the move as a milestone in Indigenous relations but some circumspection is in order — there have been plenty of false dawns in the past.

The recommendation to dissolve INAC was first made by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996.

It was one of the 440 suggested changes – including the creation of an aboriginal parliament – that were ignored when the Chrétien government released its response — Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan two years later.

There was much talk then about “renewing the partnership” and “reconciliation,” amid a commitment to welfare, education and fiscal reforms.

But as Phil Fontaine, the then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in 2000: “The promises made by the government of Canada represent the potential for a major step but the commitments have not been fully implemented or honoured in the way in which we had anticipated.”

The potential for similar disappointment exists here. It’s not immediately clear why anyone believes breaking up one huge, moribund department will immediately create two thriving, energetic branches of government. Certainly, the Chrétien government didn’t view the proposal as a no-brainer.

It has not been a panacea in other jurisdictions. The Australians have tried both extremes – Prime Minister John Howard blew up his indigenous department and dispersed the pieces; Tony Abbott re-constituted it into a department of 11,000 employees. Neither reform made a notable improvement in the lives of the aboriginal population.

The Trudeau government clearly believes that things could scarcely be worse. When the Liberals came to power, the focus was on practical results – lifting boil water advisories; building schools and so on – rather than attempting to re-organize the bureaucracy (famously described as “drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles” in Yes Minister).

But as one senior Liberal said recently, “there is just too much poison in the system”.

The decision to hand Carolyn Bennett the lead role in consulting with native organizations is less a reflection on her track record as minister and more a realization that INAC has become ungovernable – it simply dabbles in too many different disparate areas – from health to education; from infrastructure to child welfare – to do any of them effectively.

Philpott’s new department already has a daunting list of responsibilities and that is before decisions are made on whether to add health, housing, training or policing to its responsibilities.

But it is not decreed that an organizational re-modeling will improve service delivery.

The Liberals boasted in their release that they have eliminated 29 long-term drinking advisories – they neglected to mention that leaves around 127 still in place.

The release pointed out that $11.8 billion of new spending has been pledged over the next six years but ignored the non-compliance orders against the federal government issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over access to equitable services for First Nation children.

The Assembly of First Nations, which benefited from a $96 million funding injection in 2016, said dissolving INAC is a “significant step toward restoring and revitalizing the nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Crown.”

There’s no doubt that the chiefs have long baulked at what they see as a paternalistic relationship, where INAC has used its funding power to, in their view, bully and coerce.

As Bennett put it in her press conference: “It’s about de-colonizing. It’s about getting back to the original relationship that was the spirit and intent of the treaties. It’s about getting rid of paternalism.”

The perspective is different from inside the public service, where accountability for taxpayers’ dollars is a priority.

Many of those same people are likely to be on the other side of the table in the new world envisaged by Trudeau, no matter what the department is called.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Monday’s announcement is that the Liberals are intent on reforming the governance of the federal government, rather than pushing for more democracy and accountability at band level.

When Chrétien’s government attempted to introduce transformative change, it was in the form of Bob Nault’s First Nations Governance Act, which proposed a framework for bands to design new codes for elections, financial management and administration.

That attempt failed, not because it was a bad idea but because Paul Martin wanted the support of the AFN in his leadership bid and the AFN was resolutely opposed to Nault’s legislation.

Nault issued an anodyne press release Monday, saying he is pleased to see “two very knowledgeable and capable ministers” in charge of the Indigenous file. One suspects he would like to have been more involved, perhaps in a ministerial capacity. But it seems the perspective of 61-year-old white males is deemed surplus to requirements these days