Changing the Machinery of Government: Indigenous Affairs Portfolio

(Disponible en français : Restructuration de l’appareil gouvernemental : portefeuille des affaires autochtones)

More than twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that “the government of Canada present legislation to abolish the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and to replace it by two new departments: a Department of Aboriginal Relations and a Department of Indian and Inuit Services.”[1] In the specific context of the 1990s, such institutional changes were to serve as “necessary companions” to the many reforms and measures proposed by the Commission to establish a modern partnership between Canada and Indigenous peoples. For example, it proposed that the foundations of the new relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples be enshrined in a new royal proclamation. However, such recommendations were never supported.

Based on the Commission’s recommendation, the Prime Minister announced in August 2017 that he intended to restructure government to create two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) and Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). It is expected that legislative amendments will be proposed in 2018 to make these changes official and formally replace the former Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND).[2]

Mandates and Responsibilities

In the meantime, both CIRNAC and ISC operate within the parameters set by Orders-in-Council. Under a first Order-in-Council, a Minister of State carrying the name Minister of Indigenous Services was designated responsible for the similarly named department, which was added to Schedule I.1 of the Financial Administration Act. Under a second Order-in-Council, responsibility for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, the Education and Social Development Programs and Partnerships Sector and the Regional Operations Sector was transferred to ISC. This makes ISC responsible for programs and services with respect to health; education; child, family and individual services; community infrastructure; and emergency management assistance.

CIRNAC is the department with de facto responsibility for the other files in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, such as the negotiation and implementation of treaties and agreements, resolution of historical grievances and other claims, consultation and accommodation of Indigenous peoples, individual affairs (such as Indian registration[3]), resolution of Indian residential school issues, land management, natural resources and the environment, and economic development.[4] As its name suggests, CIRNAC is also responsible for northern affairs.

While the final form of the new government structure will depend on the outcome of consultations with Indigenous peoples, both CIRNAC and ISC have already identified certain priorities in their respective departmental plans. CIRNAC’s departmental plan identifies three priority areas: renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, self-determination, and Northern development. The five priority areas identified by ISC in its departmental plan are health, education, children and families, infrastructure, and establishing a new fiscal relationship with Indigenous peoples. It has also been noted that ISC was created with its own obsolescence as a goal, as Indigenous peoples gradually become responsible for administering the appropriate programs and services.

According to the 2018–19 Main Estimates, ISC and CIRNAC project total budgetary expenditures of $12.4 billion for 2018–2019. In comparison, DIAND projected expenditures of $10.1 billion in the previous main estimates for 2017-2018. According to their respective departmental plans, ISC and CIRNAC will have 3,787 and 3,108 full-time equivalents (FTEs) respectively for their core responsibilities and internal services in 2018–2019. In comparison, DIAND had planned to have 4,627 FTEs the previous year. These differences are due largely to the transfer of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch from Health Canada to ISC.

Departmental priorities and responsibilities may change as a result of legislative amendments.

Reactions to Restructuring

Until the final form of the new departments is known, it will be difficult to determine the impacts of such institutional changes. According to a recent summary of consultations, some participants expressed concern that the transformation of government institutions could result in confusion about government responsibilities and service delivery for Indigenous communities.

While some, such as National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations, are “cautiously optimistic,” others have expressed concerns about these changes. While not necessarily calling into question the merits of the restructuring, Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador did point out that Indigenous peoples had not been consulted prior to the August 2017 announcement.[5]

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples emphasized that these institutional changes are necessary but insufficient to achieve the desired transformation of the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. This restructuring was to be a key driver of deeper reforms. According to the Commission, replacing DIAND with two new departments was not an end in itself, but rather an additional step toward reconciliation and renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

Additional Resources

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Ottawa, 1996.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, A History of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Collier, Brittany. Spending and Jurisdiction for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples, Ottawa, Library of Parliament, 26 January 2016.

Derworis, Colette E. Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Historica Canada, 18 July 2018.

Authors: Olivier Leblanc-Laurendeau and Michael Chalupovitsch, Library of Parliament

[1]       Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 2: Restructuring the Relationship, Final Report, 1996.

[2]       The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has had various names over the years. However, the legal name of the department remained the same.

[3]       Under section 5(1) of the Indian Act, the department is required to maintain an “Indian Register in which shall be recorded the name of every person who is entitled to be registered as an Indian under this Act.” Indian status is a legal status.

[4]       A detailed table of CIRNAC’s key responsibilities appears on pages 38 and 39 of its departmental plan.

[5]       Senate of Canada, Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Evidence, 12 June 2018.

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