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BC Indigenous Leaders Fear Cabinet Shuffle Signals End to Reconciliation Agenda

‘We’re sitting on a time bomb,’ says one advocate.

By Katie Hyslop 15 Jan 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

The cabinet shuffle Monday that saw Jody Wilson-Raybould — Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister — moved to the Department of Veterans Affairs was a backward step, say some B.C. Indigenous leaders.

“I’m deeply concerned about what this represents,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Wilson-Raybould’s appointment as attorney general and justice minister in 2015 had been “the high point of Indigenous pride,” he said.

Wilson-Raybould issued a statement about the change.

“I am very proud to be the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence. Any opportunity to serve and support Canada’s Veterans is a great honour,” it said.

While Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out as attorney general, Jane Philpott was moved from the Department of Indigenous Services to Treasury Board president. Seamus O’Regan was named Indigenous services minister. David Lametti, a law professor, will take on the justice portfolio.

Despite promising a new nation-to-nation leadership during the last election campaign, Trudeau has clashed with Indigenous groups over pipelines, child welfare services, land claims and treaty negotiations and progress on the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Last week, 14 people were arrested by the RCMP at a checkpoint erected on the unceded territory of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northeast British Columbia. The gate, erected to stop construction on a natural gas pipeline through the territory, had the support of most of the nation’s hereditary chiefs, who are responsible for the unceded territory. The elected chiefs and councils, whose make decisions for the reserves, support the pipelines.

The standoff has since ended and pipeline workers, given permission by hereditary chiefs, have begun their work. But the confrontation sparked solidarity protests across Canada.

Scott Clark, acting president of the North West Indigenous Council, an advocacy group representing non-status and off-reserve Indigenous people in B.C, said the protests show Indigenous people, particularly youth, are getting tired of the federal government’s idea of nation-to-nation.

“We’re sitting on a time bomb right now,” said Clark. “All those people protesting across the country are off-reserve Indigenous people and our allies. And there’s a story there, that until we engage all of our people who are engaged in the process of building our nations, defining our citizens, and developing a process to work collaboratively with the Canadian state and corporations, we’re going to see this stuff escalate.”

‘A clearing of the reconciliation deck’

Wilson-Raybould is well known in British Columbia. She is granddaughter of Musgamakw Tsawataineuk nation hereditary chief Ethel Pearson, who famously adopted Native American activist Leonard Peltier into her clan and her family, and daughter of Bill Wilson, who helped successfully lobby the federal government under Justin Trudeau’s father to acknowledge Indigenous land rights and title in the Constitution.

A member of the We Wai Kai Nation, Wilson-Raybould served as a former Crown prosecutor and two-term chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations before she was elected as a Liberal MP in 2015.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, current director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia gives Wilson-Raybould high marks for her work as a cabinet minister.

“What she accomplished in three years in the justice ministry is astounding,” said Turpel-Lafond.

“Last week she released a litigation directive to try and promote settlement and resolution of cases involving Indigenous people, which is really significant and important. So she’s pushing hard to find a new way of doing business that would be more respectful and long-term. That type of leadership is remarkable.”

Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, along with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, formed “a kind of dream team” for meeting Trudeau’s commitments to Indigenous people, including writing new legislation enshrining the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and creating a new Indigenous rights and recognition framework,” said Phillip.

But the cabinet shuffle is a deathblow to that approach, he said.

“I think the prime minister himself has made a very clear decision to completely abandon the reconciliation agenda in favour of supporting business and industry in terms of oil and gas infrastructure development and other similar projects,” said Phillip.

“A clearing of the reconciliation deck, so to speak.”

Clark says that even before the cabinet shuffle, the government, while doing good work on programs and services for on-reserve First Nations people, has ignored the off-reserve and non-status Indigenous populations.

“All the governments across the land, to my knowledge, are doing the same thing. If you’re serious about children in care, missing and murdered women, homelessness, closing the gaps for education, then you have to involve the organizations that work with off-reserve people. And they have yet to do that.”

‘A very interesting 2019’

Philpott was the first minister of Indigenous services after Trudeau split the former Indigenous affairs and northern development ministry into two ministries in August 2017.

Philpott became responsible for fixing child welfare systems across the country, where more than half the children in government care were Indigenous. This was, she said, a “humanitarian crisis.”

Turpel-Lafond says Philpott was “very effective in the child welfare area.”

“Child welfare issues have been brought to the brink of fundamental reform,” under Philpott, she said, referring to the coming legislation that would place responsibility for Indigenous child welfare back in Indigenous hands.

“And if people don’t go down that road, people like myself worry that we can’t afford to lose another generation to a situation where there’s no change,” said Turpel-Lafonde. “I’m very worried about whether minister O’Regan will be able to get up to speed on it.”

Philpott was supported by Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups across the country in her work on this legislation, said Phillip.

“It seems like all of that good work has just been swept aside in the interests of pipeline politics,” he said. “The Trudeau government has dropped the ball in so many different areas, I think they’ve lost the confidence and the faith of the Canadian public.

“I can’t see Indigenous people supporting Trudeau, given the things that have happened. Talk about the poster child for messing things up.”

Turpel-Lafond predicts that if Trudeau continues to turn away from his Indigenous commitments, 2019 will mark a turning point with “a lot more” on-the-ground advocacy and action from Indigenous people.

“We’re looking at a very interesting year in 2019.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous Affairs

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