The House

Hitting the reset button on Ottawa-First Nations relations

Whether we talking about a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women or implementing recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the new Liberal government wants to drastically change Ottawa-First Nations relations. What are they ready to do in order for that to happen? The Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, joins us to discuss.

'People will have a way of measuring whether we are doing what we've been asked to do'

Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look on as Carolyn Bennett is sworn in as the minister of indigenous and northern affairs during ceremonies at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on Nov. 4, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government is "hitting the reset button" on federal-First Nations relations, says Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, but she acknowledges there's plenty of work to do between now and July 1, 2017 — setting a symbolic target date of Canada's 150th birthday.

"It is my goal to have a renewed relationship, nation to nation. We have a lot of work to do to push that reset button between now and July 1, 2017, and we hope all Canadians will be part of that," Bennett told host Chris Hall in an interview on The House.

The first step in repairing what has often been a fraught relationship between First Nations and federal governments will be the launching of a national public inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, Bennett said. 

But as her department prepares for consultations on the logistics of an inquiry, the new minister — who served as the Liberals' aboriginal affairs critic in the previous Conservative government — underscored the need to not rush into an investigation.

"We can't get this wrong. How long should it be, what should the scope be, who should be the's going to be very important," she said.

"The inquiry isn't going to fix this [issue] — the action that follows after the inquiry is what's going to fix it," Bennett added.

Trudeau to meet with First Nations leaders in December

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is expected to table its final, multi-volume report on Dec. 15. That is the date Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to meet with the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations, Bennett said.

"I believe the prime minister feels that would be a very good time to meet with the aboriginal organizations and discuss how we go forward together with their help," she said.

The meeting in December will be part of a regular series of talks between federal and First Nations political leadership that will take place at least once a year, Bennett added. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's earlier report in June issued 94 recommendations for change in policies and programs with the goal of repairing the relationship between aboriginal people and the rest of Canada.

The Liberals have promised to implement all 94 recommendations, something Bennett called a "blueprint" for a new partnership.

She said the government is taking a "results-based approach" to achieving those promises, including a pledge to remove the two per cent cap on annual increases to federal transfers to First Nations communities.

"It's going to have to be in conversation with the First Nations," she said. "We need to assess the needs and put in place the resources to meet those objectives."

Bennett will be working closely with other cabinet ministers in tackling the recommendations, including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former crown prosecutor and Assembly of First Nations regional chief in British Columbia.

"What's exciting for me is to have a partner in the minister of justice who is very knowledgeable about these things and we get to do these things together," Bennett said, adding that she will also be partnering with Minister of State for the Status of Women Patty Hajdu on the inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

Measuring success

With a four-year mandate and an "overarching goal to renew the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples", Bennett said success will be measured by quantifiable numbers.

"What we want is for the health, education and economic outcomes [for indigenous Canadians] to be the same as Canadian averages," she said, adding that the release of mandate letters from the prime minister to cabinet ministers will help hold her accountable to the task.

"People will have a way of measuring whether we are doing what we've been asked to do," she said. 

Other highlights in the mandate letter, released Friday, include:

  • Immediately implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
  • Working with residential school survivors, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, provinces, territories and educators to incorporate aboriginal treaty rights, residential schools and indigenous contributions in school curricula.
  • Updating and expanding the Nutrition North program.
  • Working with the Ministers of Fisheries, Natural Resources and the Environment to ensure environmental assessment legislation to allow for more consultation and engagement of indigenous groups in projects.
  • Working on a national early learning and child care framework as a first step to delivering affordable, high-quality child care.
  • Growing and maintaining Canada's network of shelters and transition homes for women fleeing domestic violence.