Star Phoenix – Doug Cuthand
We witnessed the unseemly sight this week of Parliament voting unanimously to force Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to obey an order by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It was a low point in the administration of the First Nations file, but it also was very revealing of a federal department that considers it a law unto itself.
On the same day media reported that INAC had lapsed more than $900 million that had been allocated to be spent on First Nations.
The motion, moved by New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, called on the Liberal government to comply with all the orders made by the human rights tribunal, which had ruled that Ottawa was practising racial discrimination by underfunding child welfare programs. The motion also ordered INAC to “immediately invest” $155 million in child welfare and develop a financial plan for future years.
The tribunal’s ruling came after a nine-year battle with Indigenous Affairs. Angus’s motion also included support for Jordan’s Principle, which states that no child should suffer delays in treatment because of jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments.
The Liberals at first had opposed the motion, but did an about-face after a letter by Senator Murray Sinclair came to light. Sinclair urged the Liberals to support the motion, stating that it dovetailed with the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation he had chaired, and which the Liberals had previously supported.
It’s absolutely disgusting that Parliament has to pass a motion ordering a federal department to do its job. INAC had been dragging its feet on the issue, stating that the tribunal’s ruling needed more consultation. It was very clear what the tribunal ordered, but the colonial office bureaucrats thought they somehow were above the law.
This has been the sad reality of this department for years. It is a part of the Canadian government that’s stuck in the 19th century, and can’t or won’t modernize. While it’s easy to blame the Indian Act for our woes, the real culprit is the Indigenous Affairs department that hides behind the act and a veil of colonialism that has stunted the growth of our generations.
While the tribunal ruled that the department was guilty of racial discrimination, it nevertheless failed to comply and left unspent the $900 million that was returned to the government’s general revenue fund and was used to pay down the federal debt.
This is happening while our communities are in crisis. The Anishnabe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario reported 16 suicides among the young people in their territory last year. We have had six suicides of young people in Northern Saskatchewan since early October.
These tragic deaths can be traced back to poverty, family dysfunction, overcrowding and other feelings of dread for a future with no hope. While money alone won’t solve this serious problem, it is one of the important resources that are needed to address this situation.
INAC has a history of chronic underfunding in the areas of housing, social services, education and health services. It also has a long history of meddling in First Nations affairs and providing substandard services. The department has been a law unto itself for generations. I recall attending a meeting of senior department officials in the 1970s, when they said an attitudinal change was required. Well, it’s 40 years later and we’re still waiting.
I am convinced that the colonial office is beyond repair. It is racist, colonial and outdated, and it should be replaced. The current department should be placed in a state of bureaucratic receivership, with its decision making power taken away and officials reduced to clerical duties.
What needs to be created is a department of treaty implementation, which operates on a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations and addresses issues in a realistic and fair manner.
Other federal departments such as Health and Environment are advocates for their areas of jurisdiction. Indigenous Affairs is the only department that’s in direct conflict with the people it is supposed to serve; therefore Canada has no choice but to get rid of this travesty and enter the 21st century.