Sending the wrong message

By Douglas Sanderson, assistant professor, Faculty of Law

This article was first published in the Spring-Summer 2010 issue of Nexus.

Illustration by Dan PageIn a provincial cabinet shuffle on Jan. 18, 2010, Brad Duguid was moved from Aboriginal Affairs to Energy and Infrastructure.

Queen's Park watchers generally regarded this as a promotion. Chris Bentley was sworn in as Ontario's Aboriginal Affairs minister, in addition to his existing duties as attorney general.

Ontario's Aboriginal people were puzzled as to what this all meant. Some wondered how much time Bentley could devote to Aboriginal Affairs-he already had a very busy portfolio.

Some saw this as a backward step. Ontario had only recently created a stand-alone Aboriginal Affairs ministry with a minister solely devoted to Aboriginal issues. Now, they felt slighted, as if their issues had been pushed to the back burner.

It's a fair question to ask. How effective can any minister be in this portfolio, given that it is shuffled every 18 months or so and now has been reduced to part-time status?

Building a stronger, better future requires a stronger relationship built on mutual respect, dialogue and interaction. But just as the relationships and the issues are coming into focus, a new minister takes the helm and the discussions begin anew.

Consider the facts. Ontario's Aboriginal people continue to suffer in poverty. Their children are six times more likely to commit suicide than non-Aboriginal kids-possibly a rate greater than any other population in the developed world.

Many live in overcrowded homes with no running water. Their children have a greater statistical chance of going to jail than finishing high school. Such statistics are deplorable, but worse, they are not new.

Ontario's First Nations were central players in the history of a province that they once owned. Today, despite treaty promises, despite "Statements of Political Relationships," and despite Commissions of Inquiry, Ontario's Aboriginal people do not have a formal relationship with the provincial Crown.

Aboriginal people have mature, sophisticated and highly democratic political representation in the form of the Chiefs of Ontario, various political-territorial organizations (PTO), sub-groupings of these PTOs called Tribal Councils and local governance via band councils.

Together, however, these political organizations have virtually no jurisdiction over their own affairs, and the collective purpose of most of these organizations is to lobby for its members. To do so, they need to meet with members of the provincial and federal Crown. Clearly, the issues facing Ontario's Aboriginal people are complex, and they cannot be fixed overnight. But the central issues are not economic or legal. They are political, requiring political interface, political agreement, and most of all, political will.

The latest cabinet shuffle also threatens to undermine one of the McGuinty government's key accomplishments in Aboriginal Affairs: mandating a public inquiry into the events at Ipperwash, including the death of Dudley George. Front and centre in the Ipperwash Report was the recommendation that the former Ontario Secretariat for Aboriginal Affairs be made into a separate ministry with a separateminister and deputy minister. It's an important recommendation.

Here's the explanation why.

The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs is a "corporate" ministry. It can do almost nothing without cooperation from other ministers. Unlike the federal Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which is a kind of super-ministry with its own health, housing and economic development departments, the provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs primarily coordinates the efforts of other ministries as they interact with Aboriginal people.

The provincial minister cannot, therefore, do anything about Aboriginal youth suicides without obtaining the support, the money and the capacity of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Community and Social Services, the Ministry of Northern Development and possibly the Ministry of Court Services and Community Safety. Unless all these separate entities choose to "row together," the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs has neither the resources, nor the expertise, nor the mandate to make a dent in the youth suicide problem.

Creating a stand-alone ministry means, for the first time since the '90s, Aboriginal Affairs has its own deputy minister who can move and shake among other deputy ministers to gain crucial support for initiatives at the highest levels of the civil service, and who can lobby the premier and cabinet colleagues for desperately required changes.

This is not to say that the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs cannot have other duties. Chris Bentley is an extremely competent minister, but the fact that he is also the attorney general is problematic. It creates a perception of bias, since Aboriginal people are often in legal conflict with the province, and the head of Ontario's crown lawyers is the attorney general. But the truth is, no minister can be in two places at once.

If the McGuinty government must pair the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs with another ministry, the proper choice is Intergovernmental Affairs. A minister responsible for Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs actually sends the right message. It says: "We think of you as another order of government, not as 'stakeholders.' We recognize your leaders as legitimate political representatives of Aboriginal people."

The McGuinty government has made some important strides in Aboriginal Affairs, but it now risks undermining those gains by failing to heed the very expensive and very time-consuming advice that it paid to obtain through the creation and funding of a massive public inquiry.

Ontario's Aboriginal people deserve better. They deserve, at a minimum, a premier who listens to the advice that he himself sought.

Illustration by Dan Page