Recent changes at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) are causing consternation across Indigenous communities, as well as with other Canadians.
The decision to split the department into two parts, one overseeing Crown-Indigenous relations and the other overseeing services delivery to communities comes right out of the 20-year-old report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which was commissioned by the Mulroney Conservative government following the Oka Crisis.
This fundamental shift in responsibilities comes with great promise and great peril, depending on how it is implemented. If the changes stay consistent with the vision of RCAP, they will be beneficial for First Nations and for the country as a whole. The recommendation of separating these two functions is one of the more practical recommendations in the RCAP report.
First of all, what was RCAP’s vision for this departmental change? Well, it was to overcome a conflict of interest within the department. Or as the final report reads: “It is intended to highlight the responsibilities assigned to the portfolio and to avoid the conflict of interest problem associated with combining negotiation and implementation responsibilities within the same departmental structure.”
There are certainly precedents for overcoming conflicts of interest in INAC. In 2008, the Specific Claims Tribunal Act was passed by the Conservative government, created an independent tribunal to resolve certain kinds of claims as an alternative to the courts. It was widely recognized that this bill addressed a conflict of interest in INAC, which makes the funding decisions, and also decided on the validity and settlement of outstanding claims.
Establishing an Indigenous relations (negotiation) department and a separate services function makes eminent sense. The report reads: “The establishment of a new Indian and Inuit services department to meet continuing federal obligations to Indian communities and Inuit, until transition to self-government.”
The intent of INAC is to negotiate self-governing arrangements with First Nation communities until they are functioning and self-reliant. In other words, it seems like the Indigenous relations department is to make the other service delivery function redundant.
A critical part of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act was not the publication of First Nation chief and councilor salaries (although that was very important), but the discovery of own source revenue streams within First Nations being administered under the Indian Act. Increasingly, Indigenous communities under INAC oversight (which are non-self-governing) are developing revenue sources in addition to federal transfers. Some First Nations already have their own sources of revenue that outweigh what they receive from Ottawa.
The federal government must ensure that dividing INAC into two parts helps bands negotiate self-government agreements with clear plans for them to develop own source revenue sources with the eventual goal of achieving self-sufficiency.
The RCAP vision clearly envisages a busy Indigenous relations department. The report says: “The negotiation role involves continuous and intense engagement with Aboriginal nations and their governments.”
If the current federal government’s intention is to negotiate self-governing arrangements with all First Nations so there are no bands administered under the Indian Act, that would benefit both bands and Canadians in general. The federal government needs to use the new administrative structure to sign off on many more comprehensive self-government agreements removing people from being under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act.
Now, clearly this major change could go sour. If the two departments don’t work in tandem, they could quickly come to compete against each other, particularly over scarce funds. At budget time, they could end up fighting over budgets. Federal bureaucrats in both departments must resist redundancy and digging in their heels to resist change.
The priority for bands is to seek economic self-reliance as they gain more and more political authority from Ottawa, so that efficiency increases and costs go down.
Without a clear vision from Ottawa about the change in INAC, First Nations and Canadians, in general, have a right to be skeptical. If this federal government and future governments make the changes to INAC properly, following the intent of RCAP and pursue self-governance and self-sufficiency, then these changes would represent a fundamental change in Indigenous policy unseen since the introduction of the Indian Act itself.