Indigenous leaders have role to play in modernizing First Nations

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When the Indian Act was amended back in 1985 to conform with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the biggest opponents of abolishing institutionalized sexism were Aboriginal chiefs.



First published on Monday, September 4, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Last week’s cabinet remake will prompt a much-needed reboot of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

By splitting it in two, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is legally acknowledging what many have realized for years.

The promised delivery of territorial services in remote Indigenous communities is a huge undertaking that will take more than an election promise to deliver.

Trudeau has announced a five-year timeline to abolish all boil-water advisories on territorial lands.

For most of us, comfortably ensconced in homes with ample access to running water, a day’s shutoff is a catastrophe.

But for hundreds of Aboriginal communities, the idea of daily access to clean drinking water is literally a pipe dream.

At the end of 2016, more than 150 communities across the country had to boil their tap water before use.

In some cases, like Shoal Lake in northwestern Ontario, and Kitigan Zibi in Quebec, the local population has not accessed safe drinking water for up to two decades.

By splitting Indigenous Affairs into two separate departments, the prime minister is fleshing out the specifics of his promise to reconcile historic divisions with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit.

As he said in support of the shuffle, “There’s a sense that we’ve pushed the creaky old structures at INAC as far as they can go”.

Minister Carolyn Bennett will continue to take responsibility for legal and treaty rights, as minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs responsible for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit relations with the government.

Former Health minister Jane Philpott has taken over responsibility for delivering services like education, health, and housing in her role as head of the Department of Indigenous Services. The switch from her former Health portfolio to Indigenous Services is not as much of a leap as it might seem at first blush.

The federal government is actually the seventh largest provider of health care services in Canada. When provincial health ministers gather to discuss issues, they often insist the sole federal role is financial. But in reality, with responsibility for Indigenous and military health delivery, the government of Canada has more responsibility for service delivery than many provinces and territories.

Philpott’s success in the Health portfolio, and her professional background, will stand her in good stead with these new responsibilities. She is also going to discover that Health ministry challenges were a walk in the park compared to the enormity of Indigenous service shortcomings and requirements.

Modern interpretation of the decades-old Indian Act implies that this paternalistic legislation was totally designed by white people who were determined to reinforce an imbalanced relationship. In some measure, that interpretation is correct. But the elephant in the room is that when it comes to legislative changes, there is no unanimity amongst different Indigenous communities.

When the Indian Act was amended back in 1985 to conform with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the biggest opponents of abolishing institutionalized sexism were Aboriginal chiefs.

At that time, if an Aboriginal woman married a white man, she lost all rights and could be kicked off her ancestral home. If an Aboriginal man married a white woman, the marriage contract would confer his rights upon the wife and all her descendants.

The greatest opposition to post-matrimony equality came from the chiefs. The Assembly of First Nations categorically refused to endorse a legislative amendment to confer equal marital rights on women and men. National native womens’ associations lobbied Parliamentarians for equality, and many of us, especially women politicians, were on their side.

Canada’s first Aboriginal minister, Len Marchand, an Indigenous leader from British Columbia, lead the charge for full equality. In the end, he lost the battle, when the act was amended to confer equal marriage status for Aboriginal women and their children but exclude descendants. To this day, vestiges of gender discrimination exist in the legislation, largely because Aboriginal leadership has blocked full equality.

Philpott will be dealing with multiple challenges in her new job, not the least of which will be working with remote communities to secure the kind of access to services that the rest of us take for granted.

Last week’s cabinet changes will ensure that service delivery will merit undivided ministerial attention.

Philpott immediately dampened down expectations, explaining that “we’re undoing generations of dysfunctional and discriminatory structures. We don’t want to pretend that this is going to be done overnight.”

The minister is right about the dysfunction. But the sad reality is that those discriminatory structures are not just a white man’s legacy.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.