Why the government’s decision to split INAC is a step in the right direction

Opinion: Perry Bellegarde on why he’s ’cautiously optimistic’ about the Trudeau government’s split of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
Bennett, Philpott
Carolyn Bennett (left), minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott take questions from media after a Liberal cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Perry Bellegarde is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

This past week, the federal government announced the end of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and a new approach in the relationship between First Nations and Canada.

As the government phrased it, INAC will now be “split.” In the recent cabinet shuffle, the Prime Minister designated a Minister responsible for Indigenous-Crown Relations, and a new Minister of Indigenous Services who will focus on delivering badly needed services to Indigenous peoples.

Reactions were mixed, with some expressing concerns about adding another layer of bureaucracy and further entrenching colonial institutions. But in fact, the change is both welcome and necessary. The Assembly of First Nations has long advocated for this approach, recommended in many previous studies and reports, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Here’s why.

In 1876, Canada imposed the Indian Act, a law still in place today that was intended to control our lives, restrict our jurisdiction and deny our rights. There have been attempts to change it or update it over the years, but its colonial roots run deep. It remains an oppressive piece of legislation that conflicts with our right to self-determination as reflected in treaties and other self-government agreements, section 35 of the Constitution, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Department of Indian Affairs, most recently known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs, was set up in 1880 to administer the Indian Act. First Nations are now working to move out from under the Indian Act, but just as it will never provide a path to self-determination, a bureaucracy rooted in the Act will not move us forward on that path. Through this restructuring, Canada seems now willing to move with us.

There are more than 600 First Nation bands in Canada. There are First Nations that have treaties with the Crown. Others do not. Some have governance structures, laws and practices in place that support their jurisdiction and sovereignty over lands, title and rights. Others are in the process of putting these structures in place.

This week’s news that INAC will be changed can advance reconciliation by establishing a new department and new Minister of the Crown focused on recognizing and implementing our long-promised rights, title and jurisdiction and supporting First Nations, who must lead the way based on their priorities and approaches, while leaving the bureaucracy responsible for delivering services with a more focused mission. Separating those responsible for achieving badly needed improvements to health, education, housing, clean water and other vital infrastructure, from those who will work with us on the future-state of the relationship and the realization of rights, title and jurisdiction, means our priorities should receive greater attention.

These changes follow the December announcement by the Prime Minister to Chiefs-in-Assembly that there will be a joint effort with Indigenous peoples aimed at decolonizing Canada’s laws and policies that for so long have denied, rather than recognized, our rights. The joint law and policy review will ultimately eliminate the legislation, policies and procedures that have been in conflict with our right to self-government and self-determination.

The key will be engaging with First Nations on the next steps to ensure we don’t simply double the bureaucracy we deal with, but create a truly new approach. If we do it right, we are at the outset of a turnaround, restructuring a Canada that works for everyone. Canadians understand and support measures to close the gap in our quality of life. Realizing the rights we have long been denied is critical to that process.

Minister Carolyn Bennett has been charged with transforming the relationship with Indigenous peoples, and accelerating the recognition of rights across the whole of government. As with all things, it will be the outcomes—not the announcement—that are most important. Actual change must take place in law and in practice in order for us to make more progress, faster. These changes recognize the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and reflect our right to self-determination. They are another step in the right direction, and I am cautiously optimistic.