With many Indigenous groups actively opposed to fossil energy extraction and infrastructure development on their traditional territories, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made repairing Canada’s relationship with First Nations and a promise to replace the much-detested 1876 Indian Act the focus of a late-summer cabinet shuffle.
Multiple Indigenous communities have raised legal challenges to a succession of fossil initiatives in Canada. Last month, an appeal to the Supreme Court by Inuit from Clyde River, Nunavut, put a stop to planned seismic testing for hydrocarbons off Baffin Island. In British Columbia, First Nations have filed suits against the federal government’s approvals of the Site C hydroelectric project on the Peace River, and lobbied against the Trans Mountain pipeline and a now-cancelled Pacific NorthWest LNG export terminal. Other communities in Ontario have done the same against the expansion of a pipeline belonging to Calgary’s Enbridge Inc., while in Newfoundland and Labrador, an Indigenous hamlet downstream from the massive Muskrat Falls hydro development has protested that its development will affect its residents’ drinking water.
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Many of the disputes centre on the contention that project proponents and the federal Crown have failed to respect Aboriginal title and Indigenous communities’ constitutional right to free, prior and informed consultation before energy and infrastructure developments proceed.
Now, however, “Trudeau is promising a new nation-to-nation relationship with Canada’s Indigenous people,” the Globe and Mail writes. He intends to deliver on the promise by dividing the former Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs between two new ministers with two new roles.
Former Health Minister Jane Philpott will take over the newly-created portfolio of Minister of Indigenous Services, with responsibility for improving the delivery of “health care, drinking water, housing, and other well-being issues that affect Indigenous peoples, such as dealing with the suicide crisis on many reserves,” the Globe notes. Many of those services currently compare unfavourably with conditions in some of the world’s poorest nations.
Former Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett will narrow her focus to abolishing the Indian Act—a goal that has eluded federal governments for decades.
“This is about recognizing that the structures in place at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada were created at a time where the approach around the Indian Act, the approach around our engagement with Indigenous peoples, was very much looked at in a paternalistic, colonial way,” the Prime Minister said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde received Trudeau’s olive branch positively. According to the Globe, Bellegarde said it showed Ottawa “is serious about acting on the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ recommendations to improve the delivery of services dramatically.”
“If we don’t want federal laws or provincial laws to apply to us as First Nations people, we have to occupy the field and create our own laws,” Bellegarde said. “You’re going to start to see a lot more of that nation-to-nation recognition and respect for jurisdiction on all sides.”