What Justin Trudeau doesn’t understand about Indigenous-government relations

OPINION: By offering Jody Wilson-Raybould the position of Minister of Indigenous Services, the prime minister signalled that he still has a lot to learn about reconciliation, writes Charnel Anderson
By Charnel Anderson - Published on March 11, 2019
Jody Wilson-Rabould
Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould serves as an MP for the riding of Vancouver Granville. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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One of the federal Liberal government’s stated priorities is to renew the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. It’s among the most important relationships to this country, according to Justin Trudeau — but recent events involving Jody Wilson-Raybould call into question the prime minister’s commitment to reconciliation.

Last Wednesday, during his testimony to the justice committee about the SNC-Lavalin affair, the prime minister’s former top aide, Gerald Butts, revealed that, in January, Trudeau had asked Wilson-Raybould — then the attorney general — to lead Indigenous Services Canada. The offer was more than a political faux pas: it demonstrated an unmistakable ignorance about the government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. It was an offer she could, and did, refuse.

Wilson-Raybould, a member of We Wai Kai Nation, in British Columbia, hasn’t been shy about her opposition to the Indian Act, which she would have been tasked with administering had she taken up Trudeau’s offer. In 2016, she said that “the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government; it is not consistent with the rights enshrined in our constitution, the principles set out in [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], or calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

On the face of it, Trudeau’s desire to appoint an Indigenous person to lead ISC may seem fitting — who better to administer the government’s Indigenous portfolio than an Indigenous person who is aware of the cultures and values of Indigenous peoples in Canada? But even a cursory look at relations between this country and Indigenous communities over the past 150 years reveals why this interpretation is misguided.

It’s worth reminding readers that the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, was designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples.

This is what Sir John A. Macdonald — who, for nearly 10 years, beginning in 1878, was the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs (the 19th-century equivalent of Minister of Indigenous Services) — had to say about the Indian Act: “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The Canadian government has historically tried to wipe out Indigenous people’s cultures: that is the basis of Indigenous-government relations; it’s also the reason why more than one Indigenous person has told me that they’re vehemently opposed to working in the public sector. (As a former attorney general and current MP, Wilson-Raybould obviously isn’t opposed to working in the federal system.) Those who try to change the system from within often come up against moral and practical complexities.

Veldon Coburn, who is Anishinaabe from Pikwakanagan First Nation, says he was “fairly naïve” but had good intentions when he took a job with the federal government in his mid-20s. He worked on water and wastewater policy at the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (today, part of ISC). He’d hoped that, through his position, he could help improve social conditions for Indigenous people — but he found himself troubled by ethical dilemmas.

“I’m sitting there making a fairly comfortable living, living in a suburb, helping the ministers say no to communities that really need drinking water,” Coburn explains. “I was an Indigenous person that would be there to hold down other Indigenous people.”

By his mid-30s, Coburn says, that dissonance had become too much to bear, and he quit. Today, Coburn is an instructor at Carleton University’s School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies.

It’s true that, as a non-Indigenous person, Trudeau has never had to deal with the ethical conundrums that result from working for the same government that has oppressed his people for more than a century. Nevertheless, offering an Indigenous person the position of “Indian agent” betrays a shallow understanding of Indigenous-government relations.

Truth comes before reconciliation. If the prime minister truly wants to transform the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, he must gain an understanding of the damage caused by the institution he leads — and the truth of our collective history.

Charnel Anderson is a journalist at TVO.org and a member of Gull Bay First Nation.

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