Indian Affairs Gets a Gender Reassignment

I now have unchallengeable objective proof that I’ve lived too long in Ottawa, and it’s this: I caught myself today wondering how the bureaucrats are going to say the new acronym AANDC, the stand-in for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. For over a century, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (known also as the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) was Diane or Diand, or even at times Diana. Now I imagine it will be Andy or Andick, both of which lead me unavoidably to the conclusion that gender reassignment has taken place and The Man now really is that.

These are confusing times in other ways. The Government of Canada this week announced a “Canada – First Nation Joint Action Plan” (prosaically rendered in brief as “The Plan”), careful to state that its fulfilment would neither resemble nor emulate the November 2005 agreement “Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gap,” known more commonly as the Kelowna Accord. Why confusing? Well, eighteen months in the making, the accord represented a consensus among the provincial and territorial first ministers, the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Metis National Council, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. How weird to toss away a precedent like that. There are however good reasons for the Conservatives to distance themselves from the Kelowna Accord, one being political and the other economic. On the economic side, Kelowna was to cost five billion dollars over ten years, these dollars being more readily available in the pre-recession years. On the political side, Kelowna was, like the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, a Paul Martin achievement. Out of one of these they could not extricate themselves, so of course as one does in such cases, they have elected to take credit. The AANDC (And Dick?) press release for The Plan proclaims that “Under this government, there has been a shift in Canada’s relationship with First Nations, exemplified by the Prime Minister’s historic apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools.”

Already the Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, is reported to be ill-at-ease. First Perspective today published some comments attributed to the AFN Chief, under the headline “Atleo expresses concerns with joint action plan”:

“In the past, the government wasn’t there to support First Nations in the good economic times,” said Atleo. “And now the excuse might be, it’s tough economic times. Well, when is it the right time to do the right thing and honour the obligations under treaty. And to recognize the crisis that the former auditor general said exists in First Nations communities.”

In 2005, Atleo was the chief signatory of the B.C. delegates who were to oversee the regional implementation of the Kelowna Accord health provisions in British Columbia. If my memory serves me (and I could well be wrong about this), the B.C.-specific First Nation initiatives went by the lofty name “Transforming the Relationship.” [Update: the correct title is “Transformative Change Accord.”] In the 1990s we had Gathering Strength – Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, another re-invention of the wheel. That was in response to RCAP, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report. Shall I continue in this vein, back to 1876? The relationship has been reinvented so many times, the phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” may itself be exhausted. And yet I was still able this week to have lunch with seasoned Conservative party members who really believed something profound had been announced.

I don’t at all mean to mock or belittle them for this. It just happens I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Through this humble website of mine, I’ve received email advising me (among other things) of the “hidden Harper agenda.” I almost wish it were so, for at least that would be interesting. Alas, “renewing” or “transforming the relationship” already feels like a worn-out trope, especially when coupled with anachronistic gestures like the annulment of the 1921 Indian Act provisions which established Ministerial authority to forcibly remove children from their families, in order to place them in Indian residential schools. Of course this bit of nastiness should be rubbed out, but does it mean we are truly in a new era?

I’d like you to read the previous sentence again. Ask yourself what has really changed in the past five, ten, or twenty years. There are today more communities in which Onkwehonweh are administering the Indian Act over themselves, where once an itinerant Indian Agent was compelled to oversee this sort of thing. Some months ago I cited the case of Oujé-Bougoumou, a Cree community which outlawed the practice of traditional Native spirituality. I’m cynical enough to say that this signals to the feds it’s a good time to get the business of self-government underway, the natives now prepared to go further down Assimilation Road than even the Department is. And, really, beneath all the rebranding there is and has ever only been one Indian Department and one Government objective, articulated by the man behind the 1921 amendment making attendance at residential school mandatory, Duncan Campbell Scott: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.” The more things change, the more this stays the same.

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