In a recurring segment of Tom King’s celebrated CBC radio series The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour the affable—but somewhat naïve—character Jasper Friendly Bear invited listeners to join him by the hearth in a segment he called “Fireside Friendly Bear.” Each week, with the sounds of a crackling fire in the background, Jasper would read an excerpt from what he called “great Canadian literature.” King’s running gag deliberately set the audience up for a more high-minded interlude in the comedy show. Without fail, however, Jasper reads a random passage from the 4,000-page Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). The gag, an example of King’s intellectual prowess and talent for sardonic humour, wryly jabs at the indifference Canadian politicians have shown for the RCAP report since its release over 20 years ago.

But last week, things changed. In his late-summer cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the occasion to draw on one of the RCAP recommendations. There, Trudeau announced that he was splitting Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two ministries: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, with Carolyn Bennett as the minister, and Indigenous Services, where Jane Philpott became the minister. Explaining this surprise move, Bennett singled-out RCAP, noting that “we’re doing what the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples asked for twenty years ago, to actually have two departments, one that was a services department and one that was the relationship and building that Crown indigenous relationship.”

While it is true that RCAP recommended this action, it is only true if one takes a very superficial, narrow, and isolated view of the recommendation in question.

The recommendation to split INAC rested on three recurring complaints heard by the commission, outlined in volume 2 of its report: 1) INAC is colonial, paternalistic, and resistant to change; 2) its performance on Indigenous policy is inadequate; and, 3) it has failed to meet treaty and claims obligations. In its report RCAP reasoned that splitting the department would bring the institutional change needed, and the two parts of INAC would address the last two criticisms by “[e]stablishing an Indian Affairs department devoted to policy concerns and reforming the expenditure process.”

The commission envisioned that a new culture would emerge in the two new ministries, as they focused on the functions of Indigenous policy and programming separately. Much of this lofty vision was reflected in Trudeau’s explanations about the division of INAC last week: “If we truly want to move forward in true partnership in reconciliation, we need to allow the good folks in the public service, the government itself, and Canadians to look differently at the relationship with Indigenous peoples, at the way we deliver services on the one hand, but also the way we build true Crown-Indigenous relationships in a nation-to-nation relationship.” But while it is admirable that the government is giving thought to the work of RCAP, a number of considerations and misgivings arise from the adoption of a recommendation that was made two decades ago.

The government climate of the 1990s

The federal government’s reading of the commission’s proposal to split INAC appears to overlook the temporal aspect of the recommendation. When proposing the structural reorganization of INAC, RCAP was guided by the following question: “How can these wide-ranging proposals for structural and program reform be explained and defended in the real world of government in the 1990s?” The report went on to assure that the commission’s “proposals for institutional reform…make sense in the existing climate” [emphasis added]. To say it another way, RCAP advised the dismantling and particular restructuring of INAC in the conditions that prevailed during its tenure. What’s more, the commission signalled the time sensitivity of this recommendation, insisting that the “government of Canada implement these changes within a year of the publication of this report,” which would have been November 1997.

The “real world of government” in 2017 is very different from what it was when RCAP was underway. Established by Brian Mulroney’s government in August 1991 and concluded during the first term of Jean Chrétien’s government in November 1996, the commission studied government during a period that was, arguably, one of its greatest upheaval. As RCAP observed, the approach to restructuring the machinery of government in the early 1990s was the “simplification” of departments, alongside a lean cabinet. This smaller government entailed smaller departments, the merging of functions from various departments, and the consolidation of operations. The extraordinary restructuring that occurred in June 1993 saw the creation of mega-departments, borne out of the union of smaller departments and agencies, which reduced the number of ministries from 32 to 23 in a single day. These large changes were followed by the Chrétien government’s Program Review Process, initiated in Budget 1994 and culminating in the decisions in Budget 1995, which brought deep cuts to program expenditures and the public service. This trend did not go unnoticed by RCAP: it observed an “overwhelming preoccupation with reducing the apparent overall size of the federal government.”

The climate of the early to mid-1990s is very different from those of today and of Stephen Harper’s government. Between 1991 and 1997, the size of the federal government underwent a rapid contraction, when government spending as a proportion of GDP dropped from 24.5 percent to under 20 percent, dipping to a low of slightly above 19 percent in 2000. The size of government was relatively stable in the years that followed, remaining under 20 percent of GDP until 2008. Since that time, the federal government has undergone growth, most notably through the fiscal stimulus undertaken in response to the 2008 financial crisis. But in recent years, the size of government in terms of spending has remained above 21 percent of GDP, and is trending slightly upward. It’s clear that much of the driving force behind the RCAP recommendation that has been adopted by the Trudeau government two decades later, has not only subsided, but it has reversed in both magnitude and direction. The conditions that prompted the recommendation to split INAC are not present in government today.

The source of policy-making power

There is another trend in the “real world of government,” however, that argues against the relevance of adopting the RCAP recommendation today. In his seminal work Governing from the Centre, Donald Savoie traces a slower moving, longer-term trend at work in federal public administration, namely, the consolidation of policy-making powers in the centre of government. Savoie’s work demonstrates that, since the time of Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s, executive power in the federal government has continually been removed from the ranks of line departments such as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and has been concentrated in the central agencies, particularly the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). More and more, successive prime ministers have cultivated the authorities that were traditionally exercised by cabinet ministers. As a result, policy decisions and policy direction originate not with ministers and their deputies, but is crafted by and emerges from the centre: the prime minister, senior advisers within PMO, and the prime minister’s top bureaucrat, the Clerk of the Privy Council.

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When RCAP contemplated the transformation of the machinery of government, it made the recommendation to split INAC as a way to increase departmental influence in federal policy. When the commission made this recommendation, it observed (in volume 2 of the report) that:

[INAC’s] performance in the federal policy arena is inadequate. Departments more focused functional responsibilities and budgets are seen as being able to ‘walk over’ [INAC], at least in its policy role. … In addition, over the years [INAC] has been seen as having insufficient capacity to bring its own policy initiatives to fruition through the cabinet decision process.

Dividing INAC, it was thought, would enrich the executive clout of the minister that directed the policy function for Indigenous Affairs. Now, with the benefit of Savoie’s analysis, it is clear that whatever improvement in Indigenous policy influence the new minister was supposed to obtain then would have been considerably diminished in the 20 years since. This would be true whether the recommendation had been implemented at the earliest opportunity in 1997, as RCAP recommended, or in 2017.

Although the countervailing forces of the past 20 years have decreased the initial urgency for splitting INAC, Trudeau and his ministers have offered a new justification, something that more represents these times. As Jane Philpott in her new position as Minister of Indigenous Services explained: “The work that the Prime Minister has announced today is in fact undoing structures that were designed to dominate indigenous cultures, to force assimilation of indigenous peoples into a culture that was not their own. By announcing today that these colonial structures will in fact be dismantled is an historic day.” Bennett had a folksier take. “It’s a story that is about decolonizing. It’s a story about getting back to the original relationship that was the spirit and intent of the treaties.”

So, will decolonization ensue from a restructured INAC? Not likely, looking back over INAC’s history.

Despite the grand announcement at Rideau Hall this past week, this is not the first time that INAC has undergone restructuring. INAC has had a rather erratic past, with numerous mergers and dissolutions into various ministries, including a split with Parks Canada in 1978. More recently, INAC assumed responsibility for the Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat, which coordinated Indigenous policy across the federal government and housed the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians when it was transferred from the Privy Council Office in 2006. Following that, INAC underwent a number of substantial departmental transformations: restructuring, realignment, and reorganization. Sectors of INAC, some of which are larger than other departments and agencies in both budget and staff, have been created, split, and folded into other sectors on several occasions.

Setting aside the imperative of decolonization that Indigenous peoples have maintained for centuries, namely, recognition of their sovereignty over their own nations, this rearrangement of INAC will not extricate either side of the colonial divide from the trap of colonialism. While INAC is commonly believed to be the locus of federal Indigenous policy and programming, the reality is that the machinery of government concerned with Indigenous affairs is dispersed across more than 30 departments. For instance, Health Canada retains power under the Indian Health Policy 1979 pursuant to the Department of Health Act, 1996; Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintains authorities over Aboriginal fisheries; Public Safety Canada (with the Provinces and Territories) oversees First Nations policing policy and programming; and, the Privy Council Office provides the “necessary corporate support” for the commissions of inquiry, including the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, to name a few. The truth is, INAC is just one of many structures that comprise the immense and wide-reaching colonial apparatus for the administration of Indigenous affairs. The two new ministries will continue to be enmeshed in the dense colonial machinery of government, changing little, if anything at all.

Immediately following the announcement by Trudeau that INAC would be dismantled, a recognizable routine began to unfold. Indigenous people sat back, while many in the chattering class and political commentariat patted the government on the back for the supposed monumental step forward in Indigenous relations. At the same time, most Indigenous people expressed skepticism. The familiar ritual of the ensuing conversations is captured by Tom King in an episode of “Dead Dog Café,” where Jasper Friendly Bear announces that he won’t be doing “Fireside Friendly Bear” any longer. It was 1998, and Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart had made an apology to Indigenous people for the residential school system. Jasper, with his characteristic naiveté, tells his two co-hosts, Tom (played by King himself) and Gracie Heavy Hand, “It’s all been settled!” Of course, neither Tom nor Gracie buy it. Tom interjects, “That apology didn’t settle anything.” He goes on to explain, “the real problems, like treaty rights and land claims and sovereignty, haven’t been addressed.” And Gracie, with her calm demeanor, repeats what Indigenous people have said every time the government makes some grand announcement: “I’ve heard those promises before. I’ll believe it when I see some real action.”

Photo: Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott take questions from media after a Liberal cabinet shuffle. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Veldon Coburn
Veldon Coburn teaches Indigenous Studies at Carleton University. He completed a PhD at Queen’s University in Political Studies. His research focuses on Indigenous politics. Coburn is Anishiaabe from Pikwàkanagàn.  

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