Events this fall have highlighted the ongoing struggle of First Nations to exercise greater control over resources and modernize relationships with governments. At the federal level, changes have occurred that reflect this move to improved self-governance, and will be discussed further at a meeting hosted by the prime minister in January. Editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe spoke with Michael Wernick, deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, about the changes.
The departmental name change makes a point of highlighting the word “Aboriginal” versus “Indian” does this reflect a changing role for the federal government?
No, I think it’s a case of the nomenclature and the signage catching up with the practice, not leading it. The term Aboriginal is the preferred term in Canada. You’ll see it in Section 35 of the Constitution Act. Most provincial ministries style themselves as Aboriginal affairs and although the international term of practice is indigenous peoples, we don’t tend to use it in Canada as much.
In terms of the machinery of government the department has had extensive Metis and Inuit dimensions for quite some time, so there was an opportunity to catch up to the practice and brand the department for what it is, which is an Aboriginal affairs department. There’s no legislative dimension to this; in fact we have to keep the original terms in all our legal documents and contracts. The government has no intention of pursuing the legislative rebranding as a priority any time soon. It’s really just for the public face of the department and the minister.
What is the balance between your responsibilities in the north and for Aboriginal people in southern urban areas?
We have coordination responsibilities on Aboriginal issues and on northern issues, but those are overlapping categories because a good number of the people that live in the north happen to be Aboriginal people, especially as you move west to east in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The issues of land claims negotiations and land claims agreements are very much alive and part of the north and so the minister and I spend about two-thirds of our time on Aboriginal issues and about a third on northern issues. But they’re overlapping categories, so we end up playing a very similar role on each of those.
Of the people that self-identify in the census as Aboriginal, the majority now live in what Statscan calls “urban centers.” Of people who have “status” under the Indian Act, about half live on reserves and about half live in the cities. The difference is if you live on a reserve, the place you go to for services looks very much like services provinces deliver: kindergarten to grade 12 education, income assistance, housing, municipal infrastructure and so on all come from the federal government and our funding of band governments.
In the city, you would get those services from the municipality and province just like any other Canadian. We’ve had activity in urban centers going back to the 1990s Urban Aboriginal Strategy, which is really about working with Aboriginal people who live in the cities, to see what we can do as a federal government to promote their economic and social development and participation in the labour market.
National Chief Shawn Atleo is calling for a new relationship between Aboriginal people and the government of Canada. What do you see as the future role for the government and the department?
I think the idea that someday the department’s lights will turn out and cease to exist is really a myth. There will always be a part of the executive branch of the government of Canada that deals with Aboriginal people. Somebody has to be the Crown in honouring existing treaties and agreements, at the negotiating table, and defending the government’s position in terms of litigation. There will probably be a significant funding role in providing services to First Nations people for the foreseeable future. So I think there will always be a department and administrative structure that handles that.
The most notable thing I have seen is the rising tide of engagement by other people with the First Nations people, particularly on reserve. There was a time, not too long ago, where the attitude in most provincial ministries was – with all due respect – “if they’re Indians they’re a federal issue. Why are you talking to me?” That’s virtually disappeared. Now you see people who work in provincial education ministries, labour market programs, social services, and criminal justice taking the presence and existence of the Aboriginal people in their province seriously and working with us. This is welcome because, frankly, if there’s any expertise out there on policy and programming in areas like K-12 education, income assistance, active labour market measures, housing policy and planning, it’s in provincial ministries and the satellites of provincial governments.
The most interesting and exciting development in the last few years is the emergence of what we call tripartite arrangements and conversations. The federal government’s role carries on from where we come from and is largely a funding role. Provincial expertise, delivery systems and infrastructure around province-like services and the First Nations governments and communities, who bring to the table their own planning and decision making, are leading to three-corner conversations that are very productive.
So increasingly the department will be focusing less on service-delivery and more on policy development and managing relationships?
The primary role we have is funding. The department spent over $8 billion dollars in taxpayer money last year in a variety of services and arrangements and I don’t think that’s going to change in the foreseeable future. If the federal government is funding First Nations’ education on reserves or child welfare on reserves then we will probably be the conduit for those funding arrangements.
Before the 1970s there was a lot of direct delivery by this department. There were Indian agents, executives of the federal government who made decisions in communities. Through the ’70s and ’80s almost all of that was turned over to band governments and councils. They run the schools, they hire and fire the teachers, they manage their own infrastructure, they do the procurement and contracting for water systems, broadband and electricity. There are more than a hundred First Nations’ run child welfare agencies. We now focus on a funding relationship with those entities.
The Auditor General of Canada’s report of May 2011 points out that there are limitations to that model in terms of improving outcomes in the long run. We seem to have run the limit of what we can get out of that model and I think what the National Chief has picked up on (as many people have) is that, if we really want to make a breakthrough in the outcome and conditions of opportunities, we are going to have to have different tools than we’ve had in the past.
What does this say about accountability?
The Auditor-General said there is an over-reliance on contribution agreements that also become tools for getting data and performance information on what’s happening out there, for compliance and for changing outcomes. So if there’s a problem with how a water system is being run by a First Nation, the only tool that we really have is to pull back on funding.
What we’re trying