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Indigenous Nationhood

Pamela Palmater's picture
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi'kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.

Why Trudeau was right not to appoint a First Nations minister of Indigenous Affairs

| November 4, 2015
New justice minister and former First Nations chief Jody Wilson-Raybould

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Editor's note: This blog was written prior to Justin Trudeau selecting his cabinet. He appointed Carolyn Bennett to the renamed Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Wednesday morning.

Justin Trudeau will be sworn in as Prime Minister on November 4 and the question that seems to be dominating social media is whether or not he will appoint a First Nation person as the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC).

Ever since contact, colonial officials sought out individual "Indians" to act on the Crown's behalf in various contexts -- as cultural and language interpreters, military scouts, and spies. In a modern context, Canadian officials have resorted to manipulating individual Chiefs to promote federal initiatives that they know run counter to our Aboriginal and treaty rights or will be met with mass resistance. This divide-and-conquer technique of pitting First Nations against First Nations has always been used to help the Crown deflect attention from the Crown's culpability on any given issue.

The worst thing that could happen for the promised nations-to-nation relationship is if Prime Minister Trudeau appointed a First Nation person as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC).

Sometimes people misunderstand the role of Crown representatives. There is no doubt that diversity on cultural, gender, and regional fronts  helps the government be more representative of the public, better inform policy and decisionmaking and make for a more productive and effective government. The research shows that this is true in both matters of government and business.

However, outside of considerations of governance, Crown representatives are always Crown representatives. They are there to protect the interests of the Crown. They may have been elected by a specific constituency and can represent them politically or advocate on their behalf, but cabinet ministers are "Ministers of the Crown." Therefore, even the Minister of AANDC is there to represent, first and foremost, the interests of the Crown -- whether the person is First Nation or not.

That said, it is true that the Supreme Court of Canada has added to the Crown's obligations to First Nations in specific circumstances. Some of these special considerations include fiduciary obligations attached to the honour of the Crown, which gets expressed in a variety of ways from having to act in good faith, consulting with First Nations, and honouring commitments.

However, it must be remembered that Members of Parliament owe their duty to "the system"; that is, the Constitution, the rule of law and all regulations imposed by Parliamentarians. Yet it is this "system" which has been found by numerous commissions, reports and investigations to be racist, exclusionary, and oppressive to First Nations.

Thus, the very act of being a cabinet minister, therefore, sets them directly against First Nation interests. This is evident in the hundreds of court cases that name the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Canada against First Nations. In every single case, Canada litigates against First Nations. Changing the face of the Minister won't change this fact nor does it change the racist system itself, which is the underlying problem. The Indian Act and thousands of federal laws, regulations and policies are still in place. It just looks less offensive -- but putting a nicer face on it doesn't make it any better and can actually cause more harm.

If Trudeau is truly serious about a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations, then he needs to come to the table in an honest way. Canada doesn't need to portray its Cabinet Ministers to be anything other than what they are: they represent the Crown's interests, not ours.

Let's have true nation-to-nation meetings with representatives of the Crown and move forward from there. It will be up to the First Nation side to how they wish to negotiate as Nations -- either as larger nations like the Mi'kmaw Nation, Haudenosaunee, or Maliseet Nation; or whether they wish to represent their collective nation-based interests by way of region, treaty or otherwise. Let First Nations do the work of their nations and Canada focus on how it will move forward in a more just way -- beyond the lethal status quo.

While we heard a great deal from the AFN about Nations-to-nation relationships, their political actions betrayed them. Secret meetings between the National Chief and the Minister of AANDC do not equate to a nation-to-nation relationship. In fact, secret meetings, surprise announcements about deals with Canada, and a complete failure to call Canada out for its destructive, assimilatory agenda, was part of the AFN's undoing. But it had to happen as it is the grassroots people who are the true governments of their Nations.

The people simply took their power back and told their leaders that sovereignty starts with each Nation -- not with a national political organization. Canada would never allow a political corporation to represent its interests in nation-based issues -- why would we? Thanks to Idle No More movement, our grassroots people have empowered themselves to take a stand against all who threaten our sovereignties, jurisdictions, lands, cultures and identities. It doesn't look like our people are willing to let things go back to the way they were. Trudeau will have to find a way to deal with this new reality if he expects to fully realize a nations-to-nation relationship.

To appoint a First Nation Minister of Aboriginal Affairs will divide our nations and set us up to be for or against the "First Nations" Minister -- a situation none of us want to be in. It will also act as a media distraction for more important issues, like murdered and missing Indigenous women or children in care. It will also unfairly make this Minister and this Minister alone, the target of all anger, criticism, and blame when things go wrong in the relationship. It would make Canadians lose sight that the fault is not in the Minister, but in the system and the entire Cabinet that keeps this unjust system in place.

It's time for the Crown to act honourably and come to the table in an honest and open way. Putting a First Nation Member of Parliament as Minister will not help us move back to nations-to-nation relations, but distract from that goal. Real change requires a radical departure from the old divide-and-conquer tactics of the past.

In the end, Trudeau, his Cabinet, and the entire federal government must realize that the hard work that lies ahead to make amends for the harms done to First Nations; the committed effort needed to address this racist and oppressive system; and the sacrifices needed to restore justice in Canada is a burden that must be borne by Canada, and Canada alone.

If we have learned anything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is that First Nations have carried the burden of injustice for far too long and at too great a price.

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Image: Twitter



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