By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Radio Canada.
Recent changes to the Indigenous Affairs ministry have engendered a response as complex as the development itself. By splitting the Indigenous Affairs into two departments – one headed by the former minister Carolyn Bennett now overseeing Crown-Indigenous relations and a new department, headed by former Health minister (and general Trudeauite superstar) Jane Philpott, focused on access to services and quality of life issues on reserves (e.g., food security, health, education) – the Liberal government has opened itself up to praise, criticism and, in some select, cagier corners of Canada’s political discourse, something verging on both an indictment and a commendation simultaneously.
Many have suggested the splitting of the departments – a summer cabinet shuffle – is simply “not enough,” characterizing the decision as a bureaucratic shell game devoid of meaningful action or substance: an accusation which may be too cynical.
Granted, Ottawa has provided us with a seemingly infinite reservoir of reasons for cynicism in its conduct on the reconciliation file… just this July, for instance, Canada’s preeminent constitutional scholar Peter Russell openly questioned whether the government had any intention to implement any of the ninety four Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, finding scant or zero evidence of movement on any of its recommendations – whose vital areas of interest include Indigenous child welfare, curriculum reform, on-reserve services, and yes, a new inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In dramatic fashion, said inquiry has coasted through the summer – a flaming locomotive hurling towards a canyon – resignation after resignation, plagued by accusations of indecision, inaction, a “colonial” structure to the hearings, and an absence of public trust.
Interpreting the cabinet shuffle as a recognition of the inquiry’s failure seems like a fair impression. It’s open to debate, however, whether it’s a sufficient response; indeed, a popular belief among Indigenous families is that a “reboot” for the inquiry has become increasingly necessary.
One positive news story on Indigenous Affairs, however, which maybe didn’t receive the attention it deserved in August when it was first announced was the Liberals’ commendable decision to support the Pikangikum First Nation in Northern Ontario with $60M to connect it to the grid, reducing its reliance on costly diesel generators for electricity. The Pikangikum Power Line Project has been plagued for years with intergovernmental confusion and disinterest.
If there were more cases like Pikangikum than high-profile resignations, delays, and perceived inaction, perhaps I would have a more optimistic article to write for you now.
In defense of the departmental changes though, splitting the departments could allow one department, Philpott’s, to act as a special delivery unit to surmount reconciliation. Here at the Ribbon, we’ve spoken before about the challenges facing the Liberals’ deliverology – which relies on quantifiable metrics to track and review results – in responding to intangible, societal problems like the ones that Indigenous Affairs regularly grapples with. But in theory, Philpott’s ministry could focus on achieving results on quality of life issues, while Bennett’s ministry sets its sights on the day-to-day relations between Ottawa and Indigenous groups. It’s worth noting, the prime minister has also signaled his hope that clean water on reserves is a focus for the new department – extant boil water advisories which can be quantified, tracked and followed.
Not long after Philpott stood in Rideau Hall, receiving her new mandate, journalists were quick to quip that only in Trudeau’s government would a Health minister get rewarded for her strong performance with a new mandate in the (presumably less prestigious) Indigenous Affairs ministry. This kind of thinking, antiquated as it is absent in ambition, fails to appreciate the sheer significance of the reconciliation file for the Trudeau Liberals. In the run up to the Canada 150 celebrations, when the prime minister was pressed about Indigenous protests, the sympathy he expressed for those who weren’t satisfied with Canada (“We recognize that […] Canada has failed Indigenous Peoples”) carried with it at least a hint of frustration with his ministry’s lack of progress on reconciliation, an acknowledgement that the current status is far from ideal. In many ways, it’s the acknowledgement that many wanted to hear from Langevin Block (renamed this summer as a gesture to First Nations.)
Putting a top performing cabinet minister on the reconciliation file with a wealth of experience in healthcare means putting the government’s best foot forward on a department fraught with challenges, delays, and intergovernmental overlap. Philpott, if successful, is hardly being “wasted” in such a position, her appointment is sensitive to the new political reality for the Liberals: success on reconciliation and improving the livelihood and quality of life for Canada’s First Nations is essential for their re-election. Perhaps no policy misstep could be more damaging for the Liberals than feeding the enduring perception that their government has betrayed Canada’s First Nations; elected on a myriad of promises to renew a nation-to-nation with Indigenous communities, Trudeau could be seen as having squandered another generation’s good will with cold, bureaucratic inaction without taking the time now to refocus his government’s efforts.
Compelling as it is simple, the LeDuc-Pammett thesis, presented in Dynasties and Interludes, suggests that federal governments form in Canadian politics only when they can convince the electorate they are better suited than their opposition in managing the country’s unity, economic stability, and social security. But it’s my theory that the LeDuc-Pammett thesis is in need of an update. The Harper government lost the last federal government without a clear challenge on these triad of priorities, especially so in contrast to other past elections where incumbents have been booted from office; there was a tangible sense of skepticism at the time regarding the extent and severity of the “technical” recession. Rather, the Conservatives failed to form government because the public wasn’t convinced they were better suited to manage a new, secondary triad of “softer” priorities that have been gestating since the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – priorities elevated in the wake of 9/11, Idle No More, and a burgeoning belief in the threat posed by climate change: Canadian priorities for a new millennium.
Prioritizing the country’s (1) reconciliation with First Nations, (2) carbon emission reduction targets and (3) multiculturalism and equality have over time been elevated in importance by the Canadian electorate to the extent that failure to manage these contemporaneous national projects of reconciliation, decarbonisation, and multiculturalisation (while avoiding conflict with national unity and economic prosperity) is tantamount itself to mismanaging the Canadian economy, pursuing unpopular health care cutbacks or instigating federal-provincial infighting.
The past month, the Liberal government has received its fair share of good news in the positive GDP growth numbers (4.5%, even), but a failure to achieve even a mere appreciable sense of achievement and development towards reconciliation in the second half of its first mandate seems at this time to be the likeliest source of detraction, cynicism, and downfall at the ballot box for the Trudeau Liberals come the next federal election. We’ve only begun to recognize what will in the future seem politically sacrosanct: that the national conscience has matured.
The desire for change on-reserves is palpable and easy to disappoint. You can be excellent fiscal managers, competent handlers of a difficult and unpredictable White House, and a trusted administration for public health and pension security, but nothing could reverse the distrust that voters will feel for the Trudeau government if there remains a sense that reconciliation has stalled under their watch.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.