5 questions with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous affairs

Since being appointed minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, Carolyn Bennett has travelled across the country gathering pre-inquiry statements from families and friends of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett says the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is "way, way higher" than the 1,200 documented by the RCMP in a 2014 report. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

She has been called the minister of reconciliation.

Carolyn Bennett is the MP for Toronto-St. Paul's and minister of Indigenous and northern affairs. Before becoming responsible for what is considered one of the most challenging federal portfolios she was the Liberal critic. 

She sat down with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild and answered questions about her new job, the history between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government and what she hopes an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women will accomplish. 

As the Opposition, you were the critic for Indigenous Affairs. Now the Liberals are the ruling party, did you have any trepidation accepting this portfolio?

"I found it totally daunting and totally exhilarating. It is very different to just be yapping about what's wrong, and to actually be able to get to do things is empowering and exciting. As we look towards the big task of reconciliation, as the prime minister says, the unfinished business of confederation, it's a very exciting job. Not only in terms of Indigenous people, First Nations, Inuit, Métis in Canada, but also the job I have to do on the 96 per cent of Canadians who don't have an Indigenous background, who know they didn't learn any of this in school, and how we're going to fill that gap of really getting to know one another and working together."

The relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government has been rocky — residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Indian Act, MMIW. Many First Nations consider you the top Indian agent. How will you step out of this shadow?

"Some say worse! I think on Twitter there are a couple of tags that are a little bit worse than that. [She laughs.] We have this opportunity to explain to all Canadians that if we can get Indigenous people really involved in our economy, involved in the ecotourism, in interpreting the amazing things, but also the entrepreneurial spirit and culture, language … then how much richer our country will be in all ways."

How will you apply Indigenous perspective and knowledge, such as thinking of the next seven generations or the holistic teachings of the medicine wheel, as the minister of Indigenous affairs?

"I think it is by continuing to listen to the people who've done a great deal of thinking about this for a very long time, if not generations. It is about knowing that if we are going to get this right, it has to be done in a partnership where the decisions are taken together.

"You got to know what you know, know what you don't know and know who and when to go for help. That's what I believe my job as minister is, to know what I don't know and to be able to talk to the people who really do."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has been going across the country, consulting with families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls ahead of the national MMIW inquiry. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Let's focus in on the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry that the Liberal Party is set to launch. What was it like to go across the country meeting families and hearing their stories?

"I think having the three ministers — the Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Minister [Patty] Hajdu is the Minister of Status of Women and myself — hear directly from the families who have been so frustrated over a decade, I think we learned a lot. It's very different than a report on your desk with a few quotes in the margin.

"There are real regional differences coast to coast to coast, therefore the solutions are going to have to be different. The actual root causes of poverty and housing, sexism and racism in policing, child abuse, the child welfare system, these are common elements, deep, complex."

What do you hope to see come out of the MMIW inquiry?

"In listening to the families, they want justice. They want to seek justice and they want to stop the uneven application of justice that happens coast to coast to coast. They feel their loved ones' lives were less valued. They want healing for themselves and their families, but mainly every one of them wants to prevent this. They want this to stop. This tragedy has to stop."

Click the listen button above to hear the entire conversation and find out what Bennett said when pressed about who will lead the inquiry.