'Things can only go better': Northern leaders applaud splitting Indigenous Affairs ministry

Northern leaders are calling the Liberal government’s decision to divide the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs a positive move for Indigenous relations.

In federal cabinet shuffle, 2 ministers will now oversee 2 portfolios instead of 1

'I think we’re going to start to see even faster progress,' says Michael McLeod, Liberal MP for N.W.T., of the cabinet shuffle that sees the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs split in two. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Northern leaders are calling the Liberal government's decision to divide the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs a positive move for Indigenous relations.

Michael McLeod, Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories, calls it a "good decision." He said there had been talks within the Liberal government for some time about adding more staff or deputy ministers to the department.

'It can only benefit the North,' says Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"I think we're going to start to see even faster progress. Now with two ministers focussed on this department, things can only go better."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the change as part of a federal cabinet shakeup on Monday. Former Health Minister Jane Philpott was sworn in as minister of Indigenous services, while the current Indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

"Things have changed over the years," McLeod said. "Indigenous leaders no longer are satisfied to deal with just staff."

"They want, on the occasion, to have the minister, the prime minister even, to be involved. They want to be able to talk face-to-face with the representatives from the Government of Canada."

Ministers, left to right, Carolyn Bennett, Jane Philpott, Kent Hehr, Carla Qualtrough, Ginette Petitpas Taylor and Seamus O'Regan attend a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo, who was elected as a Liberal and later removed from cabinet, said the move can only benefit the North.

"The priorities and challenges will be split. You'll have two ministers at the table working on different sets of issues related to the North instead of one," Tootoo said.

Tootoo called the former Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs "huge, large and complex," and said splitting up the priorities will likely move issues along faster.

"Both those ministers have been up here before," he added. "They are aware of the issues and the challenges that we face up here. It's not like you're trying to re-educate someone else on those issues."

Work needed on 'both sides'

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus calls the split a "good move."

"We've always said that it's really difficult for Canada to work with us because they're being pulled in two different directions," said Erasmus.

"One, recognizing our rights and having our governments implemented. And on the other hand, pushing for northern development, which is big projects, and undermining our rights.

'This appears to be a move in the right direction,' says Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus. (Pat Kane/CBC)

"This gives us a chance to separate the two and look at them in a different way."

Philpott will be responsible for providing services for non-self-governing communities. She said her priorities are health care, infrastructure, education, food security, housing, and child and family services.

"We know Minister Philpott," said Erasmus. "She's got a lot of experience, she's quite capable and we look forward to working with her."

The Liberal government said Monday that the move is an effort to dismantle "colonial" structures and build stronger relations with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

The recommendation to split responsibilities stemmed from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which submitted its final report in October 1996. The commission was born out of conflict, after the Oka Crisis, with a mandate to restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and propose practical solutions.

"They took a good look at how the Canadian government deals with our issues and the recommendation was to change the way the department works," said Erasmus.

"This appears to be a move in the right direction."

Erasmus says now the federal government needs to sit down with Indigenous groups and talk about what the split will mean and how the two departments will work.

"Historically, the North is set up a little bit different than the South," he said.

"They're trying to make improvements and it's going to take work on both sides."

With files from Joanne Stassen, Nick Murray