Well, we have our answer. Long-time Aboriginal Affairs critic, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, is now Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. This is not a token appointment – she is clearly qualified to hold the post.
Carolyn Bennett hails from Toronto. A medical doctor and former Minister of Public Health under Paul Martin, she was responsible for setting up the Public Health Agency of Canada and was the first Public Health Officer of Canada. Her experience includes critic of health and democratic renewal. Outside of her political life, she was a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and served on various boards of large organizations.
Much of her networking and focus seems to be with the larger Indigenous organizations; it is clear that she has done her homework on Indigenous issues. Her task is not insignificant. Liberal promises on the Indigenous file included quick action on an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, significant investments in education, and ending the boil water advisories so common in Indigenous communities across Canada.
While the appointment of a non-Indigenous minister is disappointing, as an individual, she has demonstrated her commitment to Indigenous issues and her effectiveness as an opposition critic.
In contrast to those who think an Indigenous candidate would introduce a level of conflict of interest as minister, my view is that non-Indigenous people also present a serious conflict of interest in holding this portfolio. As a settler, Ms. Bennett can only be in a direct conflict of interest while holding a position that discharges a fiduciary obligation to Indigenous peoples in all matters relating to them.
Any settler in this position would face the same reality. For the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, all decisions about Indigenous issues stand to directly benefit non-Indigenous settlers.
The person many expected to hold the post, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was tapped as Minister of Justice – traditionally a post held by stronger cabinet members, some of whom could be expected to succeed to the office of prime minister.
This was a brilliant move. The laws of this country, and the justice system itself – at federal and provincial levels – have repeatedly been criticised as being weighted against Indigenous peoples. Jailed in disproportionate numbers; affected by the chasms that exist between settler laws, protocols, and norms and Indigenous cultures and cultural practices; mistreated by police; and over-represented as victims. There is much work to do. Then there is the tsunami of Aboriginal rights litigation that has replaced a lower-cost, lower-tech form of dispute resolution: respecting rights and talking through differences.
Wilson-Raybould’s appointment as Justice Minister promises to have a significant impact in the lives of Indigenous peoples politically, collectively, and personally. To achieve this, she must prioritize and focus on how to reorient laws and the legal system in this country to provide justice – rather than the law – to Indigenous peoples.
In academia, it is more in vogue to bring a cynical analysis to predictions on what this new government might achieve. I spent the morning being derided online for being hopeful about a cabinet that is 50 percent women, that includes Indigenous individuals in meaningful roles, and that has incorporated Indigenous symbols in ways that work to change norms and mindsets positively.
Is this renewed Liberal party under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau going to bring forward neo-liberal and neo-colonial policies? I expect it will. We have a long way to go. But I remain optimistic that we are starting to walk a path that leads to progress.
Cynics are saying that all of this is window dressing. That changing the terminology of Aboriginal to Indigenous is meaningless. That putting an Indigenous woman in charge of the Department of Justice is a colonial move to co-opt someone who should be instead working for her people. That the Trudeau government has only cast new players in roles to sign off on decisions that have already been made. Cynics insist that colonialism is alive and well, thriving, and likely stronger for the “fawning” over all these changes and the misplaced hope it is engendering.
However, I look at the evidence and see cause for optimism. This is the first prime minister who is a self-declared feminist. One of his chief advisors is an environmentalist. Two major cabinet posts are held by Indigenous individuals, including Hunter Tootoo of Nunavut, and half are held by women. The cabinet represents every region, a diversity of ethnicities and religions. It is apparent that this government, in some respects at least, will simply have to be different because this cabinet is like no other cabinet we have seen before.
I don’t think it will be smooth sailing for Indigenous peoples and those charged with protecting and furthering Indigenous rights and interests. There will still be disagreements and disputes between Indigenous organizations and Canada.
However, I anticipate that a key difference now will be that there is someone on the other side who is willing to listen. For most of the last decade, that has not been the case. It is easier to be cynical, combative, and sceptical of any positive shift forward. It would take much less thought and effort.
I choose optimism.
It may not be cool, and there is a significant risk of having expectations dashed. But in my experience, working toward what you want – and winning support along the way – can be difficult but is ultimately more rewarding once success is obtained.◉
Photo credits: istockphoto/Pgiam; Liberal Party of Canada; Office of the Governor General.