Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which won its first majority in national elections in early May, has given the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) a new title. John Duncan will forthwith be known as the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, the Globe and Mail has reported.
Harper’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall told the Globe that the name change is motivated by a desire to update the language.
“Changing the term used in the Minister’s title from ‘Indian’ to ‘Aboriginal’ better reflects the scope of the minister’s responsibilities with respect to First Nations, Inuit and Métis,” he said. “This title is more up to date and inclusive, consistent with the government’s focus on moving forward in our relationship with aboriginal peoples.”
But leaders of First Nations and Inuit peoples are wary of what it might signify, and at least one is angry that they weren’t consulted.
“An arbitrary name change without consultation with the First Nations leadership is not acceptable,” Chief Guy Lonechild of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) told reporters on Wednesday, according to Newstalk 980 CJME. “We are separate and distinct peoples in this country when it comes to Indian status and Inuit people.”
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said the new Conservative majority government has started its term in office by insulting First Nations citizens.
“We are not aboriginal—we are Anishinabek,” said Madahbee in a statement on behalf of 39 First Nations in the area now known as Ontario. “Trying to lump First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples together might save space on the minister’s business card, but it is disrespectful of the truly distinct nature of the communities with whom he needs to establish better relationships.”
Madahbee’s insistence on properly naming the various peoples that make up the indigenous nations across the country reflects the battle waged for decades over use of the word “peoples” in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous representatives from around the world who drafted the Declaration insisted that the plural be used because it derives from the phrase “we the peoples” of the U.N. Charter and places the indigenous nations clearly within the framework of human rights since, only peoples have individual and collective rights. The minister’s new name even erases the identifier “Indian,” which also denotes a people, Madahbee indicated.
“How would Stephen Harper like it if he were introduced as the prime minister of Panamerica?” he asked.
Madahbee was not alone in taking umbrage. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the Inuit organization that represents about 55,000 Inuit people living in the north, issued a media release reminding journalists that Innu and Inuit are two distinct peoples, the Globe and Mail noted.
“Innu are a First Nations (Indian) group located in northeastern Quebec and southern Labrador,” the release stated. “ITK frequently receives requests regarding Innu, however they are represented by the Innu Nation.”
Indigenous leaders in the past have protested the government’s use of the term “aboriginal” because of concern that it could lessen the federal government’s legal responsibilities to First Nations. Currently most Métis and non-status First Nations are the legal responsibility of the provinces when it comes to providing services like health care and education. “Non-status” nations are roughly equivalent to the indigenous nations in the U.S.A that are not federally recognized.
MacDougall told the Globe and Mail that there are no legal implications to the name change.
“The new working title has no impact on the minister’s statutory responsibilities, and he continues to be authorized by Order in Council to act as federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians,” MacDougall said. “The new working title has no impact on the minister’s responsibilities with respect to First Nations, and the government remains committed to making progress on issues that are important to First Nations.”
The name change in Duncan’s title was announced on May 17 during the unveiling of Harper’s new cabinet. After Harper’s minority Conservative government was brought down in a no-confidence vote in late March, the party came back to win a majority of 167 seats in Parliament in early May elections.
The federal government also plans to change the department name from Indian and Northern Affairs to reflect Duncan’s new title, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported. This will be costly because it requires changing everything from the wording on the website to department letterhead for official documents and correspondence, APTN said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said the national organization will press the government for a clear definition of the term, APTN reported.
“We will be seeking clarity in the ministry’s name change to ensure that it accurately reflects the relationship between First Nations and the Crown,” said Atleo. “We will work together to ensure the constitutionally protected rights of First Nations are respected, the responsibilities to First Nations are upheld, and our interests receive specific attention and action.”
Atleo added that he hoped the name change would be more than cosmetic.
“This needs to be about real action and change, not a name change,” he said.
But Madahbee is not convinced that will happen. He recalled that Harper issued an apology to First Peoples on June 11, 2008, for past injustices such as Indian residential schools, and pledged that his government needed to move forward in partnership with First Peoples.
“Minister Duncan needs to demonstrate his understanding that the history, cultures and contemporary issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit are entirely different. The best way to do that is not to call us all by the same name,” Madahbee said. “Since 1763 the Crown in Canada has recognized that what were previously referred to as the Indian tribes of North America were in future to be treated as nations. That was the beginning of the sacred treaty relationship between First Nations and Canada.”
There is no such thing as an aboriginal treaty or an aboriginal nation, Madahbee said, concluding, “It looks like there will be many lessons for the Harper government to learn over the next four years.”