'It's an admission of failure': Sask. chief, academic unsure about Indigenous Affairs ministry split

Chief Felix Thomas doesn’t know whether the division of the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs will be a good thing or not. He does know that the current system needs to change.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Indigenous Affairs would be split into two ministries. One ministry will focus on providing services to Indigenous communities; the other will deal with higher-level constitutional issues and land claims.

“It’s an admission of failure in the present system,” the chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning. “Something needs to happen.”

The federal  government said the division is an effort to end “colonial” structures and build stronger relations with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

The two ministries will be helmed by high-profile cabinet ministers Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett.

Philpott, the former health minister, will be responsible for providing services for non-self-governing communities as minister of Indigenous services.

Carolyn Bennett, who was already serving as the Indigenous Affairs minister, becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern Affairs.

University of Saskatchewan professor Bonita Beatty said both ministers come into their roles with good reputations, but isn’t sure whether even they can provide meaningful change.

“It’s hard to move an elephant, if you will,” she said. “[The ministry] has been around for many, many years and it’s seen ministers come and go.”

Meanwhile, Chief Thomas said there is currently a huge disconnect between regional and national offices of Indigenous Affairs. He worries that splitting the ministry might make things worse.

“Regional offices and headquarters often aren’t saying the same thing,” he said. “Whether or not that’s by design or whether or not they truly don’t know, it still comes out as false promises.”

Beatty said the new system could help to focus on specific issues. 

“You can address specific things much better,” she said. “But you can also create fragmented services when one set of rules doesn’t apply to the other, and they’re not co-ordinated properly.”

The recommendation to split responsibilities stems from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which submitted its report in October 1996.

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