Views / Opinion

Splitting departments not the difference needed for Indigenous affairs: Kabatay

How does the government expect two separate departments to achieve anything when little has changed for Indigenous Peoples under one?

Carolyn Bennett (left), minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs looks on as Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks to media after a Liberal cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press / The Canadian Press

Carolyn Bennett (left), minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs looks on as Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks to media after a Liberal cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.

If there’s one thing the Trudeau government knows how to do, it’s employ symbolism.

On Monday, Justin Trudeau announced a shakeup in the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs by splitting it into two departments, with the added aim of scrapping the Indian Act.

In charge of these new departments will be Carolyn Bennett, who headed the now-defunct mega ministry, and Jane Philpott, previously the health minister.

Philpott is now the Minister of Indigenous Services and will oversee health care, housing, drinking water and other well-being issues. Bennett, now Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, will focus on negotiating treaty rights and land claims.

But what exactly is splitting this department going to do? While it is definitely a huge change with seemingly good intentions at decolonizing, how do they expect two separate departments to achieve anything when little has changed for Indigenous Peoples under Bennett’s ministry?

Now, I applaud the effort at taking a “step” towards reconciliation, but at this point it feels like reconciliation is just a word the Trudeau government parrots while few of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to actions have been implemented since their 2015 release.

During the election Trudeau made plenty of commitments and promises to Indigenous Peoples but hasn’t held up much, including the right to veto any development on our territories. (Yet he approved two pipelines.) He also promised to immediately lift the 2 per cent cap on funding for on-reserve First Nations programs and services, but still hasn’t.

He instead uses symbols, such as changing the names of buildings, or kicks off processes, in which things seem like they are happening but not much is changing. Take, for instance, the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

None of these things have led to substantial changes. Announcing this splitting of two departments, and knowing they are going to take their time with it, is just starting another process — at our expense.

Furthermore, making Jane Philpott a minister for this split department is interesting, since she previously oversaw the denial of Health Canada funding for Indigenous children soon before two young girls killed themselves. Will she be capable of overseeing the well-being of Indigenous Peoples or will there be another funding issue?

Ultimately, the success of the split hangs on how open Ottawa is to change.

In an interview with CBC’s Power and Politics on Monday, Ryerson professor Hayden King says, “The change at the culture in bureaucracy really needs to be addressed, there have been numerous attempts to reform INAC and they have all failed. The department is incredibly stubborn and resistant to change.”

If the government is serious about moving forward with Indigenous Peoples, there needs to be different thinking as well, not just different departments.

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