Financial Post – William Watson
It does not bode well that the first thing the minister of C-IRANA will do is ‘lead a consultation process to determine how best to replace Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada with two new departments’
“It is expected that within five years the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development would cease to operate in the field of Indian affairs.” That quote comes not from the federal government’s statement Monday announcing the split of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs into two new departments — “Indigenous Services” and “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (C-IRANA)” — with the intention of eventually phasing out all federal government paternalism toward First Nations. It comes from the then progressive, now progressive-derided 1969 white paper issued by Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau as a key pillar of Trudeau’s Just Society. According to the 1969 plan, the Department of Indian Affairs would have disappeared by Justin Trudeau’s third birthday. He is 45 now. I suspect he’ll be an old-age pensioner before it actually is defunct, if it ever does die.
It does not bode well that the backgrounder to Monday’s statement says the first thing the minister of C-IRANA will do is “to lead a consultation process to determine how best to replace INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) with the two new departments.” If there’s one thing Ottawa is good for, it’s consultation processes (which used to be called just “consultations”). The commission into missing and murdered native women has been consulting endlessly. Monday’s announcement implements recommendations emerging from consultations 20 years ago by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Not that the desire to consult isn’t understandable. With at least 600 native constituencies to please, anyone who raises his head above the parapet with an actual proposal gets shot down faster than a World War I soldier stealing a peek at no man’s land. The first and clearest example was the 1969 white paper itself, which, when you read it, says lots of right things, even by today’s hyper-politically-correct standards: that First Nations (OK, it does call them “Indian people”) have long been subject to discrimination; this helps explain their relative poverty; separate has not been equal; their culture and contribution to Canada have been slighted; they haven’t received the government services they should; their ownership of their land needs to be recognized with legal title; and so on.
It even uses the c-word, “colonial,” as in: federal services have been provided through “Indian agencies reflecting the authoritarian tradition of a colonial administration,” which must have been radical language in 1969. True, in 7,000-plus words it used “colonial” only once. Compare that to Monday’s backgrounder, which uses it four times in just 1,100 words: “We recognize that relationships built on colonial structures have contributed to the unacceptable socio-economic gap…existing colonial structures have not helped us work coherently… the Indian Act (is) a colonial, paternalistic law… (T)he ambition of this government cannot be achieved through existing colonial structures.”
“Colonial” is progressive-speak for “we bad.” It’s a useful word for moral posturing. Unfortunately, however much the prime minister’s virtue-signalling impresses the non-native press, it seems unlikely to move those people who must actually live under the two new departments. What exactly happens beyond repeated and increasingly unconvincing expressions of good will?
The vision of the 1969 white paper was that “separate but equal” would end. Native peoples would get their health care and education from the same provincial agencies that served all other Canadians, with the federal government providing the funding. It may be unfashionable now, but it has a clear and compelling logic: All Canadians would get the same services via the same delivery. Not separate. Just equal.
Paradoxically, paternalism gets even more centralized before being devolved to bands. The vision of today’s Trudeau government is that eventually Aboriginal peoples should provide their own public services (all of them, even the micro-bands?). But as a step along the way, all services currently provided by other federal departments will be consolidated into the new Indigenous Services department. Thus, paradoxically, the paternalism gets even more centralized before being devolved to the bands.
The end aimed at is a “nation-to-nation… government-to-government” relationship. But what does that mean? Government-to-government, as in Ottawa to Washington or Moscow? As in Ottawa to Queen’s Park or Quebec City? Or as in Queen’s Park to Toronto, and Quebec City to Montreal? The biggest multi-billion-dollar federal grants to the provinces are pretty much condition-free, but that’s because every province has an auditor-general watching over spending that is more or less transparently authorized by democratically answerable legislatures. Federal politicians aren’t just blindly trusting their provincial counterparts that spending all those transfers would otherwise be entirely above-board. Even so, the process can still be corrupted: witness last week’s five-year jail term for a $2-million bribe in a Quebec bridge-repair contract.
Consultation is fine. But if Justin Trudeau wants to go down as a better friend to First Nations than his father was, he needs to spell out the details of how things actually will work.