Indigenous MPs play prominent roles in new Liberal cabinet
- Fraser Needham | November 05, 2015
There is a new Liberal regime in Ottawa and Indigenous leaders are hopeful this will mean a new and improved relationship with Canada’s government.
Aboriginal leaders had what can only be called as an at times a rocky relationship with Stephen Harper’s Conservative government over the last 10 years.
Whether it is the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, Bill C-45 or the Idle No More movement – Indigenous groups often found themselves at odds with the Harper government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his new cabinet were officially sworn in on November 4 and expectations are high.
If opening ceremonies are any indication, it appears the Liberals intend to conduct their business in a very different way than their predecessors.
At the swearing in ceremony in Ottawa, Trudeau and his ministers were led in by the traditional Cree drumming of 13-year-old Theland Kicknosway.
This was followed by Inuit throat singers Samantha Metcalfe and
Cailyn DeGrandpre, both 11.
The ceremony was then rounded out by the Prairie Fire Métis Dancers which includes twins Riley and Hunter McKenzie, their brother Jacob and Jaime Koebel.
There was also acknowledgement at the ceremony that the cabinet swearing-in was being held on traditional Algonquin territory.
Trudeau has also pledged and met gender parity in the cabinet, which consists of 15 men and 15 women.
The new Prime Minister has committed to minority representation in his first cabinet as well and this includes Indigenous representation.
The Liberals elected eight Aboriginal MPs in the last election and two of these MPs have been appointed to cabinet.
Jody Wilson-Raybould is the first Aboriginal person to hold the justice and attorney general portfolio.
The Vancouver MP has an impressive resume, which includes serving as a Crown prosecutor and regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.
Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo is Canada’s second Inuk to be appointed as a federal cabinet minister.
A former member of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly, he has been appointed minister of fisheries and oceans and Canadian coast guard.
Long serving Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett has also been appointed minister of Indigenous and northern affairs.
Charles Smith is a professor of political studies at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.
He says Trudeau has taken some positive steps in appointing two Indigenous MPs to major portfolios.
“It’s fantastic to see the rise of Indigenous members of cabinet in such senior positions,” Smith says. “I think we can all applaud that as a step in the right direction to reconcile what has been historically a colonial relationship from Ottawa to Indigenous people and having prominent members of cabinet should be able to change the conversation and recognize the legitimate claims of Indigenous peoples around a whole host of things.”
Smith also says he believes the Liberals will move quickly on a number of issues as part of the party’s commitment to pursuing a “nation-to-nation” approach with Indigenous communities.
He says he wouldn’t be surprised if the new government scraps, or seriously alters, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act and makes moves to move beyond the centuries old Indian Act.
However, Smith says both processes are likely to be done in a much more consultative manner than was the case with the Harper government.
Regardless of whether or not the new Trudeau government takes a more consultative approach with the Aboriginal leadership than was the case with the previous government, it remains to be seen whether the government will put its money where its mouth is in terms of putting funds in place to meet campaign promises to Indigenous people.
In the election, Trudeau promised a multi-billion dollar plan to address educational infrastructure needs on First Nations reserves as well eliminating the current two per cent funding cap on transfers to Indigenous communities which has been in place since 1996.
David McGrane also teaches political studies at St. Thomas More College.
He says he is somewhat skeptical whether or not the Liberals can meet all the promises the party has made to Aboriginal people and is taking a wait and see approach.
McGrane says he is disappointed to see Trudeau did not appoint an Aboriginal MP to the Indigenous and northern affairs portfolio and was hoping the new Prime Minister would make calling a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women his first priority rather than a tax cut to the middle class.
“There is a possibility that maybe Trudeau is a little more Harper-light than he let on during the campaign,” he says. “It begs the question, you have these pressing issues in terms of First Nations people and the first thing you do is something that is going to take away a whole bunch of revenue from federal government coffers (middle class tax cut). So, he has a lot of ambitious plans but his first move is to reduce federal revenues that are needed to put in place those plans. It is an interesting move and it might signal a return to the old Liberal way of campaigning to the left and governing to the right.”
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, who is also newly elected himself, says he was impressed by both how the swearing-in ceremony was conducted and the makeup of the new cabinet.
“When these ministers came out and Carolyn Bennett, also a long time advocate for our inherent and treaty rights – we were happy with that,” he says. “Jody Wilson and Hunter Tootoo, it’s very historic because for the first time ever and it’s an acknowledgement, a recognition that our First Nations people across Canada saw the importance to vote in this election.”
Cameron says he hopes Indigenous people realize that they can make a difference if they get out and participate in elections, like the most recent one, and they continue to be active in the upcoming provincial election, which will be held in the spring.
He says he has worked closely with Jody Wilson-Raybould at the executive level in the past and is looking forward to working with the new justice minister again.
Cameron also notes he has not had a chance to talk to the new Prime
Minister yet but plans are already underway to meet with senior
government officials in the coming weeks to get any number of files
One thing that will definitely be on the agenda when the FSIN does meet with the new government is an appeal to get government funding to the organization restored to previous levels.
Veteran Regina Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has been appointed minister of public safety and emergency preparedness.
P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAuley takes over the agriculture portfolio, Toronto MP Bill Morneau finance and newly elected Ottawa MP Catherine McKenna environment and climate change.