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Breaking Away from the Indian Act? Cautious Optimism over the Dissolution of the Department of Indigenous and Norther Affairs (INAC)

On August 28, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a major restructuring of the bureaucracy responsible for administering Canada’s Indian Act. The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) is to be dissolved, and its responsibilities shifted to two new Ministries. Carolyn Bennett, previously the Minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, has assumed the new title of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, while Jane Philpott, the former Minister of Health, is now Minister of Indigenous Services.

According to the Prime Minister, the reconfiguration of this massive bureaucracy (INAC has a budget of approximately $10 billion/year and over 4,600 full-time staff) responsible for the administration of the Indian Act is an attempt to move past old colonial structures which hamper the promotion of Indigenous self-governance and reconciliation. Under the proposed reconfiguration, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations will have responsibility for Canada’s relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, with a focus on the conclusion of land claims and self-governance agreements, while the Minister of Indigenous Services will focus on healthcare, education, housing, food security, and child and family services as they relate to Indigenous peoples.


This shakeup of the federal bureaucracy potentially signals a foundational shift for the better in Canadian-Indigenous relations. If the government is to be taken at its word – a big if – then this reconfiguration indicates the government finally takes seriously the work of building renewed, nation-to-nation relationships based on recognition of Indigenous people’s inherent right to self-determination and the need to move past Canada’s troubled and violent history of suppressing Indigenous rights. It means the government realizes that existing bureaucratic structures are inherently colonial, and that reconciliation is impossible so long as they continue to exist. A department dedicated to negotiating with Indigenous peoples as self-governing nations reflects a return to the historic treaty relationships between European settlers and the Indigenous communities they encountered on the North American continent. Rather than “administering” Indigenous peoples as colonial subjects, these new Departments will hopefully engage Indigenous peoples as co-equal nations/orders of government.


According to James Fitz-Morris, director of communications at INAC, Minister Bennett will lead a 6-month consultation with Indigenous stakeholders to assess their views on how the departmental split should proceed. This will be followed by the formal dissolution of the old department and the constitution of its two replacements, including the reallocation of the public servants who currently work for INAC.


Many unknowns remain. No timetable for the tabling of the required legislation has been set, and INAC has given no indication of which Indigenous communities or groups will be consulted as the Government decides what these new departments will look like. This lack of clarity is troubling, given the government’s long record of initiating consultations and then later abandoning them when they became too fraught or “burdensome” to the government’s agenda.


As Joshua Nichols and Robert Hamilton note here, we also have little way of knowing how the Government thinks these departments should operate until the required legislation is in place and INAC bureaucrats have settled into their new jobs and been given their new marching orders. As they rightly point out, splitting the work of one department into two may also create entirely new headaches like competition over limited government funds, while making coordination on complex files more difficult. There is also no guarantee that splitting responsibilities will somehow increase the efficacy of service delivery or reduce the absurd delays in settling outstanding land claims; at the current pace, it is estimated that completing the process of treaty-making with Indigenous nations may not conclude until 2100 or later.


Notwithstanding these concerns, the early reaction of some Indigenous groups to the dissolution of INAC reflect a cautious optimism at the government’s new approach. Given the deeply rooted mistrust between Indigenous communities and Ottawa, and the troubles Trudeau’s administration has had in acting on some of its major election commitments to Indigenous peoples, Canada has little room for error as it executes this potentially historic transformation. The move to dissolve INAC and disentangle Indigenous peoples from the racist, colonial chains of the Indian Act is one we must all watch closely.


The stakes for Indigenous peoples and reconciliation couldn’t be higher.


Photo: Headquarters Building of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Gatineau, Quebec. 

Chris Koziol is the Project Manager of ABS Canada, a SSRHC-funded research initiative based at the University of Ottawa, where he is currently a Juris Doctor candidate. Chris recently completed a Masters in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he also worked as a teaching assistant. He is a 2013 honours graduate of the Arthur Kroger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University where he minored in law and human rights. Chris is originally from Victoria on Canada’s beautiful west coast.