When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the United Nations General Assembly last week, he spoke at length about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, its shameful legacy of residential schools and present-day inequities facing First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.
He also spoke of his government’s decision, announced last month, to split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two departments. “We’re dismantling the old colonial bureaucratic structures,” Trudeau said of the restructuring, which is intended to support greater self-determination for Indigenous peoples, but has been met with some skepticism about exactly how it will be implemented.
Chatelaine spoke with Jane Philpott, former health minister and family physician, who is now in charge of the Department of Indigenous Services, and Carolyn Bennett, who now heads up the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, to find out how they plan to address some of their biggest challenges.
What do you say to concerns that splitting the department in two will increase the risk of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities getting caught up in more, not less, red tape?
Philpott: My goal is to put our emphasis on service delivery, on the front lines, of the highest quality for Indigenous peoples in this country. And if anything to diminish bureaucracy and red tape along the way.
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The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls got off to a late start and is expected to have spent 75 percent of its $53.8 million budget by the end of this fiscal year. Have the commissioners come to you, Minister Bennett, for an extension or more money?
Bennett: No. I know they have talked about it in press conferences and in interviews but no, we have not seen that… Any proposal would have to come with a work plan and a budget and we will have to see what they’re asking.
TVO recently reported on the story of Kyle Yellowhead, 17, from Nibinamik First Nation who was assaulted more than once at a school in Thunder Bay. When you hear about something like this, do you pick up the phone and call somebody? How do you put a stop to that?
Philpott: Very often we do pick up the phone and call people. If something like that happens in a specific First Nations community, Minister [Bennett] or I will pick up the phone and call the chief right away.
Have you had a chance to do that in this case?
Philpott: No, I haven’t in this particular case… But what you’ve alluded to are things that are even deeper beyond that, the stigma and discrimination that takes place when there isn’t a school system within someone’s community and they’re forced to go to another community. And we see that across Canada, and it happens not just in education, it happens in health care. There is deep, deep stigmatization of Indigenous peoples that is in fact racism.
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So this is a clear case of racism?
Bennett: [Yes]. And that story is the reason we are spending as much time not only in building the schools and inspiring young people to want to be teachers and doing the kind of things Jane [Philpott] is responsible for, but by signing an agreement with the Anishinabek Nation to actually have control over their school system.
In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that First Nations children are being discriminated against due to insufficient funding for child and welfare services, and ordered the government to end this discrimination. You’re contesting that ruling over a “technicality,” but you say you’re not short-changing First Nations kids. Are you saying you can seek “clarity” from the tribunal while at the same time going ahead with child welfare reforms?
Philpott: Absolutely. We are absolutely, firmly committed to the full implementation of Jordan’s Principle [which ensures that First Nations children living on and off reserve have equitable access to all government-funded services] and we’re moving full steam ahead on that. We’ve made it very clear what the definition is, we’ve trained hundreds of public service employees on understanding the principle. Now there are over 14,000 new cases where people are getting treatment that they weren’t getting about a year ago. We’re working very ambitiously to make sure that kids get care.
There were a couple of pieces in the last tribunal ruling that we were worried [would perhaps] get in the way of giving the very best care to kids. One of them, for example — and I think it was really a misunderstanding in the report of the tribunal and that’s why we’re going to get clarity — said we’re not allowed to do case-conferencing. As a family doctor, I said, but sometimes you actually need clinical case conferencing so that you can get the doctor and the social worker and the nurse and the teacher all talking together about what does this kid need. That’s what we call case-conferencing and the tribunal said we’re not allowed to do that. So we want to go back and say, Are you sure that’s what you meant? Can we clarify that? And hopefully we’ll get clarification on that as well as another issue, which is around making very rapid decisions. Obviously we try to make rapid decisions as much as possible but we didn’t want to be forced to make a rapid decision if it meant it would be the wrong decision.
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As you know, First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock and NDP MP Romeo Saganash have been critical —
Philpott: I am working very, very closely with Cindy on this. We have a really good working relationship.
So this isn’t about shirking responsibilities, or stalling?
Philpott: Absolutely not. Not for a minute. No, we have put hundreds of millions of dollars behind this — pardon me for getting worked up, but this is really important to me. I have made it absolutely clear to the entire department that I expect every First Nations kid to get access to the best possible care, the care that any other Canadian kid would get… The answer should almost always be yes, and it should be yes as quickly as possible.
Natan Obed, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has called on the federal government for help in eradicating tuberculosis in Nunavut. More recently, global AIDS activist Stephen Lewis came back from a fact-finding mission of sorts and said the government needed to do more. What actions has the government taken?
Philpott: We have prioritized this issue and I was one of the people who asked Stephen Lewis to get involved because I know he’s got such a strong voice for justice issues and I’m thrilled that he’s involved in this now. This is something that I have been working on with Obed… and there’s no question it is a top priority issue for Inuit peoples in Canada. Tuberculosis rates are hundreds of times higher [there] than for the rest of Canada… in some cases it’s 300 times as high as the rest of Canada.
We are working on a comprehensive plan… [that] involves making sure there’s an adequate number of nurses to do contact-tracing, for example, and making sure there’s access to good medicines. There are new medicines that previously were inaccessible in Canada for short-course treatment of people with latent tuberculosis. So one of the things I did as health minister was institute a new ability for us to bring in bulk some of these medications which are now proving to be very effective.
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Have they been delivered yet?
Philpott: We put the change in the regulations in the spring and hopefully, the medications are now here… It also involves things like housing because there’s severe overcrowding in many Inuit communities and we know that tuberculosis is spread in circumstances of housing. It is simply unacceptable that Canadians should die of tuberculosis and that we should have rates which are some of the highest in the world.
In a year’s time, what do you hope you’ll be able to say that you achieved?
Philpott: Hard numbers on how many houses have been built, how many schools have been built, how many teachers have been trained, how many communities have lifted their long-term boil water advisories, how are we doing at making sure people get access to affordable, healthy food… There are lots of things that we will be able to give hard measurements on, but I hope at the same time I’ll be able to say that in many places across the country the responsibility for the delivery of services is going to be in the hands of the communities themselves. They have the solutions and we’re here to be enablers and to make sure that we close the gaps, but [also to] pass over the responsibility and authority for people to control their own lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited Minister Bennett as referring to a health care agreement with the government of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Minister Bennett was in fact referring to an education agreement with 23 Anishinabek Nation First Nations. We regret the error.