Paul Martin feels 'better about where we're going' after Indigenous Affairs split

For the first time in a long time former prime minister Paul Martin, architect of the Kelowna Accord, says he's happy with where the government is steering its relationship with Canada's Indigenous peoples.

Former PM is eager to see dismantling of Indian Act, but critics say the split may lead to more problems

Former prime minister Paul Martin poses for a portrait following an interview with The Canadian Press in 2016. Martin says he thinks Canada's move to dismantle the Indian Act could have consequences for Indigenous people around the world. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

For the first time in a long time former prime minister Paul Martin, architect of the Kelowna Accord, says he's happy with where the government is steering its relationship with Canada's Indigenous peoples.

"I feel better about where we're going now than I have in a long time," Martin told CBC Radio's The House in an interview airing Saturday.

"We've been living with the consequences of not living up to these issues now for the last 150, more, years. Look, you can't avoid doing the right thing forever."

Jane Philpott will now lead Indigenous Services, a department that will oversee programs for status Indians, including welfare, education, child and family services, housing, long-term water advisories and health care.

During this week's cabinet shuffle, the federal government announced it would split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two separate departments — more than 20 years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended such a division.

Carolyn Bennett is overseeing Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. The former INAC minister is tasked with settling outstanding comprehensive land claims, clearing a backlog of grievances at the Specific Claims Tribunal and generally fostering a new era of self-governance.

Bennett will also lead the government's continued push to dismantle the Indian Act.

"It is racist and it was racist when it was created. The Indian Act controls, or seeks to control, the lives of all Indigenous people in a way that you and I would never accept," Martin said.

"I think what you'll find, once you've really given teeth to the inherent right of self government and you've given teeth to investing in the kinds of things that are going to give young Aboriginals a chance and a future, I think what you're going to see is they are going to function the same way everybody else in this country is. They're going to look to the future and they're going to build."

Measuring the starting line

Naiomi Metallic, the chancellor's chair in Aboriginal law and policy at Dalhousie University, said the recommendation to dissolve the Indigenous Affairs department was just one of many recommendations from the Royal Commission. Others included proposals on self-governance, treaties, health, housing, economic development and education that need to be addressed.

Metallic said implementing the rest of the 1996 report is key to moving away from the Indian Act.

"If we're going to use the analogy perhaps of a race and a starting line, you need to actually be starting at the starting line, not 50 feet behind it," she said.

Naiomi W. Metallic, an associate lawyer at Burchells LLP, would like to see Canada implement recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (Canadian Press)

"Some of our communities we have, in terms of socioeconomic indicators, [are] below on everything," she said.

As prime minister, Martin oversaw the signing of the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which envisioned the investment of $5 billion over 10 years for education and social welfare programs for Aboriginal Canadians. Stephen Harper, who took over that year as prime minister, didn't continue with the accord.

Martin said he hoped splitting Indigenous and Northern Affairs would have grown out of the accord — if it had lived on. 

When it comes to the practical terms of what a Canada without the Indian Act would look like, Martin said the roadmap towards a nation-to-nation relationship should be in the hands of Indigenous communities.

How to structure nation-to-nation relationship?

"One of the first things that the First Nations are going to have to decide is, is it going to 640 communities or is it in fact going to be some 50 to 60 nations," he said.

"All of the decisions that have to be made in this area are theirs to make."

Not everyone is heaping praise on the decision.

Christopher Alcantara, an expert on Indigenous-settler relations at Western University, said splitting the departments could have a negative effect.

"If you really want to have a nation-to-nation relationship — if you want to have a reconciled relationship — then dividing a little department into two even littler departments is not the answer," he told CBC.

Carolyn Bennett, left, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs looks on as Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks to media. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced major changes to Indigenous governance Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The answer is to transform this department into a premier department within the federal government, one that has equal clout to finance and justice. They should have made it into a super ministry."

Hayden King, a professor of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, echoed that, saying the last thing Indigenous peoples want is "another layer of bureaucracy and twice as much obfuscation. We want to see less of the paternalism that already exists, not see it multiply."

Since leaving politics, Martin has continued his work with Aboriginal communities with the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative.

The former Prime Minister talks about the challenges that will come with trying to replace the Indian Act, and why "you can't avoid doing the right thing forever." 9:17