Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The two departments that exclusively serve the needs of Indigenous peoples both received new ministers—sort of—this morning as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named his new Cabinet.
Carolyn Bennett has been ousted from her position of minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNA) and replaced by Marc Miller, who has arguably received a promotion from his role as minister for Indigenous Services (ISC).
Neither move surprises Courtney Skye, research fellow with the Indigenous think-tank the Yellowhead Institute.
“Carolyn Bennett was just not living up to the promises that she had made,” said Skye, pointing out that Bennett had six years in the portfolio.
When the Trudeau government took power in 2015, Bennett headed the then-Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development department and was tasked with leading its restructuring. In 2017, the department became the two separate ministries that exist today.
“(Bennett) doesn’t really have as much progress to show for how long she’s been in that portfolio. So just based on what’s happened and the inability to actually implement some policy change with the changing relationship with Indigenous people, they needed to put someone else in there,” said Skye.
Bennett also faced criticism this summer by some Indigenous employees in her department who claimed that she ran a toxic workplace.
Criticism continued when shortly before the election she sent a text to independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, who made it public. It suggested that Wilson-Raybould was arguing against the calling of an early election to save a federal pension that wouldn’t kick in if the election were called.
Wilson-Raybould called the text “racist and misogynist.” Bennett quickly apologized but it wasn’t enough for a number of Indigenous organizations, which called for the minister’s resignation. Trudeau said Bennett’s actions were “wrong” and “hurtful,” but took no other action on the matter.
Bennett was assigned a new position in the Cabinet. She is now the minister in the department of mental health and is also associate minister of health.
That is a demotion that “given her performance is warranted,” says Skye.
While Miller may have been the obvious choice for the Crown-Indigenous Relations portfolio, having served as ISC minister since 2019, Skye also questions his ability to deliver. She points to the persistence of boil water advisories despite a promise to be rid of them all by now. She also draws attention to the visible position Miller held in 2020 in discussions with members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk territory in Ontario, who shut down rail lines in support of the Wet’suwet’en stand against the natural gas pipeline in their British Columbia territory.
“What happened from that conversation? Carolyn Bennett wasn’t there. It was (Miller) being point person on a major crisis and there’s nothing you can really show for him supposedly speaking Mohawk,” said Skye of Miller's much-ballyhooed ability in the language.
“There’s just not been the work while he’s been in the portfolio in ISC. I’m not sure how that’s going to change now that he’s at CIRNA.”
Skye says she is surprised to see former health minister Patty Hajdu take up the lead with ISC. Hajdu is the fourth minister in that portfolio’s short four-year lifespan.
“I’m a little more optimistic about Patty Hajdu than I am about Marc Miller,” Skye said. “She’s a very smart woman. I really admire her work ethic.”
Skye says because Hajdu is MP of Thunder Bay, she is aware of the racism that exists in that community and as former minister of women, Hajdu was part of the three-women ministerial team roll-out of the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls inquiry process.
“I think she has a little bit of awareness of what needs to be done…I’m sure she’ll do an adequate job,” said Skye.
There had been some talk about the possibility of a Reconciliation ministry. Skye says she would have been more surprised if that had occurred.
“I thought they were doing reconciliation this whole time?” she said.
In his election platform in 2015, Trudeau committed his “most important relationship” was the one with Indigenous peoples.
Skye also questioned the practicality of splitting the Indigenous ministries even further.
“I think they're stuck with the split … they committed to those many years ago. That was already kind of their foundational shift in what was happening. I'm not sure they would be able to manage another shift after they've been so soundly criticized for doing token gestures over meaningful change,” said Skye.
As for the new portfolios of mental health and housing, which could have direct impact on Indigenous populations, Skye would like to see these new ministries, as well as existing ministries, focus on Indigenous issues.
“I am hoping that all these other … ministries … have their own effort to establish some cultural competency, some anti-colonial framework, have foundational policy that looks to advance Indigenous jurisdiction and rights than just ISC and CIRNA.”
As for the new fisheries and ocean minister, Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray, Skye says she needs to listen to the nations “that have stewarded and lived in relation to our ocean since time immemorial” and bring their perspectives to that portfolio. Previous minister and Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan lost her seat in the September election. She had been criticized for ignoring the inherent and treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq fishers and the violence that broke out between First Nations and non-Indigenous fishers.
In the press conference that followed the appointment of the 39-member Cabinet, Trudeau committed once more to “reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in every job we take, in every step of the way….to hear from them, to talk about the step forward, to recommit ourselves to doing even more. We’ve done a lot but there’s so much more work to be done.”
“I’m hoping that’s what happens. We keep hearing these promises. We keep hearing these commitments and think about being optimistic about what’s happening and … the rhetoric doesn’t match what’s happening,” said Skye.
Dan Vandal, Métis MP from Manitoba, remained the only Indigenous person in Cabinet, as minister of Northern Affairs, as well as Minister responsible for Prairies Economic Development Canada, and Minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.
This is the first Cabinet sworn in by Mary May Simon, the first Inuk Governor General.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.