Indigenous Affairs Plus is Canada’s “super-province”

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Sheilla Jones

It isn’t easy to grasp just how vast and complex Canada’s federal Indigenous affairs portfolio has become over the past fifty years. In part, that’s because Indigenous Affairs (now divided into Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations) is unlike any other federal government department. The portfolio is more accurately described as a federally run province.

This makes sense because, according to Indigenous Affairs (IA), some 80-percent of the Indigenous programs and services it delivers, particularly in First Nations communities, are provincial responsibilities such as health care, education, housing and employment programs.

How does this federally run “province” stack up against Canada’s real provinces and territories?

First off, it is a super-province. IA (no matter how the department is divided) has jurisdictional reach over about 90 percent of Canada’s landmass through the historic treaties and the modern treaties signed after 1975. That’s a lot of territory.

As a federal government entity, IA is naturally federally funded. Provinces and territories are also funded in part by federal transfers. We know the amount of those transfers because Ottawa publishes those figures.

What we do not know is how much the federal government spends annually delivering Indigenous programs and services. The Indigenous Affairs department had a budget of about $10-billion for 2017-18. But there were, according to IA, another 33 federal departments and agencies acting as its co-delivery partners for Indigenous programs and services.

Until 2004-05, IA published the names and contributions of its co-delivery partners. IA’s funding was $5.8-billion that year, and its 13 co-delivery partners were spending an additional $3-billion on Indigenous programs. Collectively, IA+ (Indigenous Affairs plus its federal co-delivery partners) spent $8.8-billion delivering Indigenous programs and services across Canada. After that, IA stopped providing data on co-delivery partners.

A rough guesstimate of what IA+ (IA and its 33 co-delivery partners) spent delivering Indigenous programs and services in 2017-18 is about $19-billion. That’s a lot of money.

If IA+ were a real province, $19-billion in federal funding would, in 2017-18, have placed it just behind Quebec ($22.7-billion) and Ontario ($21.1-billion) as Canada’s third largest recipient of federal transfers, and well ahead of fourth place British Columbia ($6.7-billion).

But that’s not all. The federal government has announced new spending on delivering Indigenous programs and services of another $4.8-billion over five years and $1.7-billion over ten years. As the federal government continues to accelerate spending on Indigenous issues, IA+ may soon overtake Quebec to become Canada’s largest “province”.

The Indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) who are recipients of the programs and services delivered by IA+ are effectively its “citizens”. Not all of the 1.5-million people who self-identified as Indigenous in the 2016 Census are IA+ clients, but the majority are.

But here is where the analogy breaks down. In normal federal government departments, the minister is appointed by the Prime Minister and accountable to the PM and Cabinet. Departmental bureaucrats are, in turn, accountable to their minister. However, IA+ is not a normal department.

IA+ holds inordinate power over the lives of people in First Nations and Inuit communities from birth to death, yet the “citizens” of IA+ have no say in how it operates. Not a single person in the IA+ administration is elected by ordinary Indigenous people to represent their interests. Not a single one.

Indigenous people cannot express their dissatisfaction with the IA+ administration by throwing it out and electing one more to their liking. There are no structural mechanisms built into the federally run “province” of IA+ whereby its “citizens” can demand their voices be heard or hold the administration accountable to them.

It would be as if citizens of, say, New Brunswick or Saskatchewan were governed by a bureaucracy in Ottawa, without any elected officials chosen by the people to represent them. Such as situation would justifiably be considered an outrageous affront to democracy.

With jurisdictional reach over almost all of Canada and spending rivalling Quebec and Ontario, IA+ can indeed be considered a uniquely powerful “super-province”. But it is one whose citizens are uniquely powerless.