The department responsible for overseeing programs and services for Indigenous communities in Canada has a new leader, and Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister is being moved as part of the Trudeau government’s cabinet shuffle, announced Monday morning at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will take over as president of the Treasury Board and minister of Digital Government, while Kwakwaka’wakw Justice Minister and Attorney General Judy Wilson-Raybould is being moved to Veteran Affairs.
Wilson-Raybould will also take on the role of associate minister of National Defence.
Seamus O’Regan is moving from Veterans Affairs to Indigenous Services.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Julie Payette pose for a photo after Jane Philpott was sworn in as president of the Treasury Board. Justin Brake/APTN.
While Monday’s cabinet shuffle is modest, it could have big implications for Indigenous people in Canada.
Philpott was appointed to the newly-created Indigenous Services portfolio following the Liberals’ split of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two separate departments in late 2017.
The decision caught Indigenous leaders by surprise at the time as the feds had not sought their input on a decision many have said could impact the lives of the more than 1.6 million Indigenous people in Canada.
But many leaders praised her efforts and her achievements, including last month’s announcement that Canada and Indigenous leaders will co-develop new child welfare legislation in an effort to return to Indigenous nations and communities control over their children.
Carolyn Bennett stays on as minister of Crown-Indigenous relations.
The cabinet shuffle was sparked by the sudden departure of Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, who was president of the Treasury Board.
Trudeau said O’Regan’s “compassion” will serve him, and the government, well.
“As a leader, in our Cabinet, I know he will work tirelessly alongside Minister Bennett to being about real change for Indigenous communities in this country,” said Trudeau at the swearing in ceremony.
The prime minister later told reporters O’Regan’s “experience and interactions with Indigenous peoples as well throughout his life will help him in terms of making sure this government is living up to its responsibility to fix the most important relationship we have with this government, that with Indigenous peoples.”
Trudeau also said Philpott was a “natural choice” to take over for Brison.
It’s unclear how the shake-up will affect the proposed child welfare legislation that is expected to be tabled later this month.
But a federal official said it remains a “big priority”.
“There will be lots of briefings with the new minister over the next little while to bring him up to speed,” said the official.
In a statement Monday Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said “cabinet positions will change, but First Nations peoples and issues must remain a top priority.
“We will work to ensure the entire cabinet understands that the First Nations agenda is Canada’s agenda,” he continued, hours before an already scheduled meeting with Trudeau and Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations ministers to discuss First Nations priorities.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) President Natan Obed said that on the Indigenous Services file ITK “hopes to build on the progressive foundation established by Minister Philpott with Minister Seamus O’Regan, and we look forward to welcoming him to the upcoming Inuit Crown Partnership Committee meeting in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in March.”
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Philpott’s removal came as a “surprise” to the AMC, which had made progress on issues like child welfare with the outgoing minister, but added he hopes O’Regan “will honour that relationship by pushing forward on our various initiatives, particularly regarding child and family Manitoba-specific federal legislation.”
In an unusual move for an ongoing minister, Wilson-Raybould posted a lengthy statement to her website Monday listing her achievements as attorney general and justice minister, and addressing questions around her removal as the high-ranking official in charge of those roles.
She said she “will not be commenting” on speculation around her shift to Veterans Affairs, and that “decisions regarding the appointment of Cabinet Ministers are the prerogative of the Prime Minister.”
Jody-Wilson Raybould when she was first sworn in as Justice minister in Nov. 2015. File photo.
Wilson-Raybould notes in the statement “there is very little, if anything, in my mandate letter we have not done or is not well under way to completing, and we have also achieved much beyond it.”
She also says the “foundation for moving forward [on reconciliation] is understanding that the dire social and economic realities that Indigenous peoples continue to face – including lack of clean drinking water, over representation in the criminal justice system, inadequate housing, high rates of poverty, and violence against Indigenous women and girls – are directly linked to legislative and policy regimes that have disempowered and divided Indigenous peoples, eroded their systems of governance, laws, and responsibilities, harmed their economies, and denied their basic rights and systems.
“Long overdue legislative and policy changes based on the recognition of title and rights, including historic treaties, are urgently needed, so that Indigenous peoples can accelerate and lead the work of re-building their Nations and governments, and a new climate of co-operative relations can emerge,” she writes.
“While our government has taken some very important steps, and hard work is being done, the necessary shifts have not yet been fully achieved. Rather, a number of the proposals that our government has been pursuing so far require substantial work in co-operation and collaboration with Indigenous peoples to reset the new foundations for this most important relationship.”
Ending her letter Wilson-Raybould says that as a cabinet minister she will “continue to be directly engaged in advocating for and advancing the fundamental shifts in relations with Indigenous peoples that are required and will continue to work with my colleagues and to ensure my voice is heard.”
The Trudeau government’s term wraps up in June with a fall election on the horizon.