In a late summer reboot, almost exactly mid-way through his mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made some major changes to his cabinet.The largest shift saw Jane Philpott, the much-vaunted health minister, moved to become the second minister for Indigenous affairs, alongside current minister Carolyn Bennett.Bennet is to become “Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs,” while Philpott’s title will be “Minister of Indigenous Services.”“We have pushed the creaky old structures of [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] about as far as they can go,” Trudeau told reporters after the shuffle.Philpott’s new role is a clear recognition that the Indigenous affairs file — one that Trudeau has aggressively prioritized — is proving more challenging than he first imagined. Between an ongoing crisis at the inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women, which has been beset by criticism, boycotts, and resignations, Trudeau’s government has proved slow on its commitment to bring clean drinking water to all First Nations reserves across Canada in his first mandate.
The overhaul to how the government manages Indigenous affairs is aimed at dismantling “colonial structures” that have long existed in Ottawa, the government contended.“We believe that we need to do more to be able to construct a relationship that has never before been achieved with success,” reads a government backgrounder.“To put it plainly, the level of the ambition of this government cannot be achieved through existing colonial structures.”Trudeau, speaking with reporters, argued that the shuffle had nothing to do with a lack of performance or progress on Bennett’s part and reiterated his promises to close the funding gap for social services on reserve and end boil water advisories for Indigenous communities.“Ending long term boil water advisories requires changes to infrastructure, but also to governance, and capacity in those communities,” Trudeau told reporters, adding that he was “very confident” that he would fulfill his promise to end those water advisories.Bennett’s new job will be a broader, over-arching one, aimed at reimagining how Ottawa deals with Indigenous peoples, with an aim “to develop a framework to advance a recognition of rights approach that will last well beyond this government.”Philpott, meanwhile, will be tasked with “continue the important work of improving the quality of services delivered to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.”The changes will require actually splitting the department in two, something that Trudeau says will come, likely, by next spring.
“To put it plainly, the level of the ambition of this government cannot be achieved through existing colonial structures.”
Trudeau also sent a message directly to the employees of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada on Monday, telling them: “We need to shed the administrative structures and legislation that were conceived in another time for a different kind of relationship. The moment is upon us to work with even more focus with Indigenous Peoples and our provincial and territorial partners toward making our national journey of reconciliation a reality.”The plant to break up the department originates from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which suggesting eliminating the ministry as it existed then, instead assigning one minister “to negotiate and manage new agreements and arrangements from the federal government’s side” and tasking the second to “deliver the gradually diminishing services coming from the federal level.”Trudeau has made it a priority of his government to devolve powers and promote self-governance to all Indigenous people. Part of that pledge has been abolishing the Indian Act, which the government itself calls a “colonial, paternalistic law.”When pressed on Monday, however, Trudeau could not give a timeline on replacing the act.Philpott who, as health minister, has been tasked with managing the ongoing fentanyl crisis and who successfully struck health accords with the provinces that proved elusive for her predecessor, is seen as one of the more effective ministers in cabinet.Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who was first elected in 2015, becomes minister of health.Bennett has been a member of Parliament for more than twenty years, and previously served as a junior minister under former Prime Minister Paul Martin, lending a degree of experience to Trudeau’s cabinet.But while this is not exactly a demotion for Bennett, it’s a clear sign that progress has been too slow when it comes to Trudeau’s lofty ambitions.
“We need to shed the administrative structures and legislation that were conceived in another time for a different kind of relationship.
The larger shake-up also saw Seamus O’Reagan, a neophyte Newfoundland Member of Parliament and close personal friend of the prime minister, moved into veteran’s affairs.Kent Hehr, the current veterans minister, has been moved on to sports and persons with disabilities, a job currently held by Carla Qualtrough, who is moving to become minister of public services and procurement, replacing Judy Foote, who is leaving political life.
It’s a clear sign that progress has been too slow when it comes to Trudeau’s lofty ambitions.