Justin Trudeau’s approach to Indigenous affairs contrasts sharply with that of his father, but some are skeptical that his latest move to split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada will reap lasting results.
In 1969, the Canadian government published a proposal on “Indian policy” that quickly achieved infamy. Dubbed “the White Paper,” its idea was basically the complete legal assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Ottawa would transform reserves into private property, scrap all treaties and eliminate the Indian Act, with its blood-based calculus for “Indian” status.
The thinking at the time — propagated by the new prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and his “Indian Affairs” minister, Jean Chrétien — was that this would finally achieve equality for Indigenous peoples. They would, legally speaking, become just like any other Canadian.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau promoted the idea of equality through what is known as the “White Paper” in 1969, which recieved huge backlash from many Indigenous peoples
Many Indigenous peoples saw things differently.
The backlash was huge, predicated on the notion that the nations that pre-date European settlement have a right to exist; that even though the Indian Act was, and still is, a widely reviled law from the 19th century, to wipe the slate clean — reserves, treaties and all — would extinguish a principle of partnership that stretches back even further, to the earliest treaties between Indigenous peoples and newly arrived colonizers.
One of the most prominent voices to condemn the White Paper was Cree writer and activist, Harold Cardinal, who summed up the opposition thinking in his 1969 book, The Unjust Society. “We would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights,” he wrote. “Any time the government wants to honour its obligations to us we are more than ready to help devise new Indian legislation.”
Almost 50 years later, that time may finally be near.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a different approach to Indigenous policy than his father. He wants to scrap the Indian Act, yes, but instead of killing the concept of Indigenous nationhood along with it, he has made much ado about his commitment to strengthen it — essentially the opposite of assimilation.
This week, as he shuffled his cabinet ahead of the fall sitting of Parliament, Trudeau announced what he framed as a big step toward fulfilling that vision: the dissolution of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two new government ministries, Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations, headed respectively by ministers Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett.
“It’s a story that is about decolonizing,” said the new Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett last week. “It is about getting rid of the paternalism and being able to understand that we have to move to a new way of working together.”
A new frontier, in other words — but what is to be found over the horizon is still very much shrouded in questions.
Pamela Palmater, the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, dismissed the whole thing as a “distraction” from what she characterized as the government’s failure to fund Indigenous education, housing, water infrastructure, health and child services at adequate levels.
Pamela Palmater, the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, expressed concern that the split in ministries would simply add layers of bureaucracy without addressing core issues.
She also noted that the idea to split Indigenous Affairs comes from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, in which it was one of 440 recommendations for repairing government Indigenous policy that over the decades has included residential schools and laws that restricted movement, cultural practices, use of languages and voting rights of Indigenous Canadians.
Palmater said she’s wary of the move to pluck a single edict from the commission report 21 years later, and even more so given that many argue the Trudeau government has failed to follow through on recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on residential schools, and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Palmater also expressed concern that the split would simply add layers of bureaucracy without addressing core issues.
“It’s another superficial act that does nothing for people on the ground,” she said. “The problem has always been a lack of political will to do what they’re legally and morally bound to do.”
The government’s handling of key issues under the now-dismantled Indigenous Affairs Department has certainly been criticized. The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is delayed and has been attacked as insensitive and inefficient by Indigenous families. And the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal determined in 2016 that the government was discriminating against Indigenous children by failing to provide social services comparable to non-Indigenous kids, and has ruled three times since that Ottawa is failing to fix this.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said that she has run up against a “can’t do” attitude for years in INAC. She welcomed the move to split the department, but said she wouldn’t express hope for change unless new leadership is brought in.
“The colonial bones of that organization are so entrenched that even when you have good people go in there, it’s very hard for them to move the systemic racism that is embodied in that department,” Blackstock said.
She said that, in place of a potentially symbolic move, the parliamentary budget officer should tally the deficiencies in funding for Indigenous services. The government could then institute a sort of “Marshall Plan” spending blitz so that comparable services can be achieved as soon as possible, she said.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended a similar spending push in 1996, concluding that it would save money in the long run by mitigating entrenched problems in many Indigenous communities, such as higher rates of mortality, mental illness and substance abuse. Like many other recommendations — such as the creation of an Indigenous parliament and an Indigenous university — this never came to be.
But others have been more hopeful of the INAC split. Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement this week that it “signals a new approach” toward moving beyond the Indian Act and “reasserting our jurisdiction and sovereignty over our own lands, title and rights.”
The government argued this week that this is one of “two tracks” for achieving reconciliation. The other is creating better services for Indigenous peoples, especially on reserves and in remote communities. The government pointed out its plan to spend $11.8 billion in the coming years to lift drinking water advisories, build and renovate schools and homes, among other commitments for Indigenous peoples.
The conversation has clearly changed since the elder Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper, and Blackstock said a new approach is indeed welcome. But she’s holding back on endorsing the government’s move until she sees what comes next.
“What matters to me is when I see children on the ground be able to get a clean glass of water, go to a school that’s safe, get good quality education and get a fair chance of growing up in their homes,” she said.
“I’ll be optimistic when I see the action.”