In­dige­nous Af­fairs split au­gurs well for progress

Northern News (Kirkland Lake) - - OPINION - DOU­GLAS CUTHAND

It came as a sur­prise. None of the First Na­tions or Métis lead­ers were aware that the sum­mer calm would be bro­ken by a his­tory-mak­ing event like the split­ting of In­dige­nous Af­fairs into two sep­a­rate en­ti­ties with two cab­i­net min­is­ters. Both min­is­ters — Carolyn Ben­nett and Jane Philpott — are med­i­cal doc­tors, and the pa­tient needs se­ri­ous re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

The ini­tial re­ac­tion from the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions and the Fed­er­a­tion of Sov­er­eign In­dige­nous Na­tions was cau­tious op­ti­mism.

The an­nounce­ment was over­due. The Depart­ment of In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs has been steadily los­ing in the courts and tri­bunals. Bill Gal­lagher, who wrote Re­source Rulers, pegs the score at about 250 lost cases for the Depart­ment.

The In­dian Act is not com­pat­i­ble with the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion on the Rights of In­dige­nous Peo­ple, the Cana­dian Con­sti­tu­tion, the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms or the Treaties. The depart­ment has lost so many cases that it was ef­fec­tively backed into a cor­ner.

In the past the depart­ment ei­ther ig­nored cases that re­vealed its un­equal treat­ment of First Na­tions or worked around them. De­part­men­tal staff were also terrified of be­ing sued for breach of trust, so they erred on the side of cau­tion, mak­ing any le­gal deal­ings un­wieldy and pa­ter­nal­is­tic.

Cindy Black­stock with the First Na­tions Child and Fam­ily Car­ing So­ci­ety beat them soundly at the Hu­man Rights Tri­bunal, charg­ing that the depart­ment was grossly un­der­fund­ing child wel­fare. The case set a prece­dent and other pro­grams such as ed­u­ca­tion and wel­fare, could all be found se­ri­ously un­der­funded.

Now it is up to Philpott, the for­mer min­is­ter of health, to take on the pro­vi­sion of ser­vices to First Na­tions peo­ple while Ben­nett con­cen­trates on ne­go­ti­a­tions and re­la­tions with First Na­tions lead­ers and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The prime min­is­ter re­ferred to the depart­ment as a “creaky old struc­ture,” but it’s more than that. It is a colo­nial in­sti­tu­tion with a colo­nial men­tal­ity. Its cor­po­rate cul­ture is pa­ter­nal­is­tic, con­trol­ling and neg­a­tive to­ward treaty and Abo­rig­i­nal rights. The man­date of the depart­ment is to ad­min­is­ter the In­dian Act, a piece of leg­is­la­tion that is at odds with the times.

Philpott has her work cut out for her. The depart­ment un­der­funds First Na­tions to the point that there is a se­ri­ous dis­crep­ancy in fund­ing pro­vided provin­cially. First Na­tions do not have bud­gets, they are given al­lot­ments from the depart­ment and forced to make do. It’s all based on what is avail­able. The de­part­men­tal staff show up at band of­fices at the end of March with fund­ing agree­ments. The band can take it or leave it. Of course the clock is tick­ing to­ward the next fis­cal year. In­vari­ably the funds are ac­cepted be­cause the First Na­tion has no choice.

Philpott has to bring fund­ing up to par­ity and live up to the treaty prom­ises. She has to change the cor­po­rate cul­ture of the depart­ment and ei­ther pen­sion off the old colo­nial staff or re­as­sign them to other posts.

Ben­nett also in­her­its a mori­bund state of af­fairs. Ne­go­ti­a­tions for land claims, com­pre­hen­sive claims and leg­is­la­tion have ground to a halt. The prob­lem lies with the fed­eral ne­go­tia­tors who use land claim agree­ments and other deals to ter­mi­nate First Na­tions’ rights. First Na­tions ne­go­tia­tors can’t ac­cept the loss of their rights, so the ne­go­ti­a­tions reach an im­passe.

In Saskatchewan we were able to ne­go­ti­ate the land­mark treaty land en­ti­tle­ment agree­ment be­cause the bu­reau­crats took a back seat to politi­cians.

The First Na­tions are look­ing for ac­tion and jus­tice. Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has as­signed two doc­tors to solve this im­passe. Will they be able to make sur­gi­cal changes, or does the pa­tient need as­sisted sui­cide? Dou­glas Cuthand is an abo­rig­i­nal writer for the Saska­toon StarPhoenix.

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