The executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society is calling for a complete review of both departments under the Indigenous Affairs umbrella and the bureaucrats running them.
“The operating system in INAC is still protecting what the bureaucrats think what the government’s interests are,” said Cindy Blackstock. “At some level, I think for many it’s what their interests are – they can get promoted and rewarded and conformity and that means a kind of status quo at INAC.”
Blackstock is calling on Canada to implement what is called a 360-degree review of the two departments responsible for First Nations, Metis and Inuit issues – because she isn’t convinced that change can come from within.
“One of the questions I asked the bureaucrats at INAC after the (human rights tribunal) decision and have asked it consistently since then is, what did you learn from the tribunal’s decision about the way the department thinks and acts in ways that discriminate against little kids? What did you learn about that and how have you reformed yourself internally so that you do not repeat these patterns of behaviour?
“And they can never answer that question.”
Blackstock took the federal government to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over a decade ago for discriminating against First Nations children, saying the government underfunded programs. The tribunal ruled in her favour in January 2016.
Reform is what the Liberal government promised during the election that swept them to power in 2015.
Ministers are still promising it.
“We are working towards getting out from underneath this broken system,” Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said during a speech at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) special chiefs assembly in Ottawa last week.
But some say they haven’t seen any change.
Oneida of the Thames Chief Randall Phillips is one of them.
“I’m spitting mad,” Phillips told APTN News at the AFN gathering. “Absolutely nothing has changed in that regard.”
Phillips was also angry about comments Philpott made at the AFN gathering about her bureaucrats
“Bureaucrats are good,” she said. “They want to do the right thing. But they worked in a former department of Indigenous Affairs that worked in an era of denial.
“We are working to turn that around”
But despite Philpott talking up her worker bees, Phillips said it doesn’t ring true.
“I don’t buy it for one second,” Phillips said, pointing towards the room where Philpott was speaking. “I don’t buy it for one second that what they’re saying now is all they need was a culture change and leadership from the top. They’ve had ministers before who said that they wanted to work with First Nations and move these things in a positive way but they (bureaucrats) kept on saying no.
“So what is going to change? In my mind, absolutely nothing.”
This year’s edition of the AFN’s Christmas assembly had its usual parade of cabinet ministers promising a number of changes.
Carolyn Bennett, the minister for Indigenous-Crown Relations, spoke of the now common theme of the importance of the government’s nation-to-nation relationship with communities.
She ran through a history lesson that irked some chiefs – but received a polite reception.
Some ministers did not get the reception they were looking for.
Sources told APTN that with the aid of a French and English translator, Canada Revenue Agency Minister Diane Lebouthillier held a closed-door session with chiefs to talk about the OI Leasing debacle.
Bureaucrats within Lebouthillier’s department, with the support of the courts, have forced employees of OI Leasing, including a number of past and present employees of APTN, to pay thousands of dollars in income taxes, after they believed they were exempt because the leasing office was located on Six Nations, near Hamilton, Ont.
According to the sources, what was supposed to be a speech, followed by a question and answer session between chiefs and the minister, turned heated with pointed comments aimed at Lebouthillier and her bureaucrats about the department’s handling of the file.
She left without answering questions.
That was followed by Philpott who took to the podium in the main assembly and promised more money for First Nations child welfare ahead of an “emergency” meeting scheduled for some time early next year and to keep learning about the issues that need addressing.
“I acknowledge there is a lot that I don’t know … but I want to learn from you,” Philpott said.
Phillips said he likes Philpott – and her energy – but he said red flags went up when she made that comment.
“She don’t understand our issues,” he said. “So again we’re relying on bureaucrats that have been fighting us for 150 years to say this is what they want and this is how we should do it – it’s not going to happen. It’s going to happen in someone’s utopian mind, it’s not going to happen on the ground. I’ve been dealing with this for 37 years – nothing has changed.”
In Alberta, the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is also in constant contact with the bureaucracy.
Allan Adams has been in a pitched battle with the province over the tar sands.
He said the issues with bureaucrats crosses from the federal government to province.
“You know we went through the same changes in Alberta with the NDP government and we thought when the NDP government came in that things would change,” Adams said. “The only thing that changed was the government.
“The bureaucrats are still there, the issues are still there, the issues haven’t gone anywhere – the same process goes over to Canada on a national scope. We had Conservatives exit with the bureaucrats in place, only the political party has changed, the system hasn’t changed at all.”
Adams said he will go to meetings with five or six ministers who are surrounded by bureaucrats and he said he’s not clear who is running the show.
“You have a process, you have a system, you have things that are in place that they have to follow and bureaucrats follow a system. Unless ministers want to bring changes to that system, well then show it to me. Where are the changes coming in the legislation? That is the only time you’ll be able to make a change to the bureaucrat’s system and if you don’t do that then you don’t have the mechanism or mandate to make any changes,” he said.
Cindy Blackstock is currently working at McGill University in Montreal preparing to teach a First Peoples course in January.
There, students will choose one of the Truth and Reconciliation’s calls to action and write an implementation plan.
They might learn about the time she was escorted from a government office when a member of the minister of Aboriginal Affairs staff learned she was attending a meeting between chiefs and bureaucrats over child welfare.
Or about the time, first reported by APTN in 2011, when federal government bureaucrats under the Stephen Harper administration in the former Aboriginal Affairs and Justice departments were spying on her online and tracking the content of her public speaking engagements after she filed a human rights complaint against Canada over First Nations child welfare.
“(The two departments) have repeatedly accessed, viewed, read, copied and recorded personal information from (Blackstock’s) personal Facebook page,” said a 2013 report from Canada’s privacy commissioner.
But what about today?
“I operate as if I am (being spied on) because when it was over with my counsel asked the department to sign an undertaking saying that the surveillance had stopped – and they wouldn’t do it. So I have no assurance that they’ve done it,” she said.
Blackstock said there have been some changes in the bureaucracy at the First Nations Inuit Health Branch.
“They have Valerie Giddeon, who is First Nations and worked a lot in this area, and I think she has helped shift that relationship,” she said. “So the department isn’t spending the lion’s share of its time defending its definition of Jordan’s Principle, but is instead recalibrating its efforts towards compliance with the orders.”
After tribunal ruled against the government, it has issued several non-compliance orders against Ottawa for not following through with its ruling.
As for the 360 review, said bilingualism needs to be addressed because the requirement for high-level jobs eliminates many talented Indigenous candidates who would be better at setting the agenda for the department.