Last year, opposition parties fought hard to open up the Liberal-dominated Commons committee on electoral reform. The governing Liberals eventually caved under public pressure and evened it up with a more balanced, less partisan membership.
Yet again last week, the Liberals sought to dominate another file. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government has assembled a “Working Group of Ministers” to review all federal laws and policies as they relate to indigenous peoples.
This initiative is a long time coming. National indigenous organizations like the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations, and Pauktutit have long called for repeal of the paternalistic Indian Act, first adopted in 1876.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report spelled out many problems with this racist legislation, such as the fact that it was designed with the deliberate goal of assimilating all indigenous peoples - not unlike the Indian residential school system. “The Indian Act was a piece of colonial legislation by which, in the name of ‘protection,’ one group of people ruled and controlled another," said the Commission's report.
It goes without saying that the task of the working group is well warranted and long awaited. The fact that it will be led by an indigenous woman, Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould, is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the process as it’s been outlined thus far sets off a number of alarm bells. And that’s not just because the entire working group is Liberal. Here are some of those concerns:
In 16 months, the Trudeau government has broken even some of its simplest promises to Indigenous peoples. And some really big ones.
Just a handful of the long list of promises the Trudeau Liberals have broken to indigenous peoples since 2015: ending racial discrimination of First Nations children by repairing the broken child welfare system; addressing at least a few of the more than 150 boil water advisories on First Nations reserves across the country; and consulting indigenous peoples before announcing major development projects like pipelines. With a track record no better than the Harper government that preceded it, it's pretty tough to put any faith in this government to deliver something substantive.
There was no evidence of any formal consultation with indigenous peoples prior to the formation of this working group.
Exactly how, pray tell, does one examine and review a litany of discriminatory laws and policies and how they negatively impact numerous races of people without consulting those people? The only organization which has reportedly been ‘consulted’ to this point is the Assembly of First Nations - an advocacy group that lobbies government on behalf of on-reserve First Nations (and to which Wilson-Raybould belonged prior to her election in 2015). Perhaps the prime minister has an explanation for this he’s yet to reveal, but so far, indigenous peoples (and the rest of Canadians) are in the dark.
Just one of the six ministers on this committee is indigenous.
The chair of the group is a trailblazer, a brilliant litigator and a highly capable indigenous woman who has fought all her life for the rights of her people. She takes every possible opportunity to remind her colleagues of her Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Unfortunately, Wilson-Raybould will be the only Indigenous person in this working group. Here’s who will be joining her: Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs; Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard; Jane Philpott, Minister of Health; Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development; and James Gordon Carr, Minister of Natural Resources.
You’d think, in the same way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women were designed to be led for indigenous peoples by indigenous peoples, that more people with the lived experience of indigeneity would be leading this working group. Apparently Trudeau didn’t feel that to be necessary.
Everyone on this committee is a biased, card-carrying Liberal.
The Conservative government has a pretty terrible track record in their indigenous advocacy. Liberals haven’t had the greatest history either. The New Democratic Party caucus, however, includes an Indian residential school survivor and lifelong advocate for indigenous equality in its shadow cabinet (Romeo Saganash) and an MP who has used every possible opportunity during his time as an MP to fight for Indigenous peoples (Charlie Angus). Excluding these members of Parliament from this working group purely for partisan purposes does a disservice to the cause.
Reviewing multiple archaic laws and policies designed to assimilate an entire race is an extremely complex undertaking, and calls for the best of the best in indigenous and other law.
Only one of the six ministers on this committee has any legal background whatsoever. Would you hire five plumbers and one mechanic to fix your car?
Indigenous activists, academics, chiefs and experts are already predicting this to be yet another paternalistic government-to-Indian approach doomed to fail.
The last thing indigenous communities need is more wasted time and wasted money that could otherwise be spent on more urgent matters – like ending boil water advisories or building shelters for the tens of thousands of indigenous victims of domestic violence.
Pondering big questions like whether or not to scrap the Indian Act is a behemoth task best served by an independent advisory committee of experts who are primarily if not entirely indigenous. Not by six partisans (five white and one First Nations) whose time is already stretched thin between their constituency duties and ministerial portfolios. There’s not a chance in hell any of the MPs on this working group will have an adequate amount of time to do this work justice.