Carolyn Bennett has been shuffled out of Crown-Indigenous relations and Marc Miller will take her place, moving over from Indigenous services as Prime Minster Justin Trudeau shakes up his cabinet.
Miller will be replaced by Patty Hajdu, member of Parliament from Thunder Bay, Ont., who was health minister during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’ll face her first test on Friday, which is the deadline for the government to appeal a recent court decision in an ongoing case about First Nations child welfare. Hajdu told reporters she’s looking forward to the job but didn’t directly answer when asked about the case.
“We all agree that litigation isn’t serving Indigenous children. But there are many important conversations to be had, and we’ll be having them very quickly,” said the freshly sworn-in Hajdu.
“Compensation is important but ensuring Indigenous children have equity in services and opportunities, like every other child across this country, is extremely important as well.”
Dan Vandal, who is Métis from Winnipeg, stays put as northern affairs minister and remains the only Indigenous cabinet member. He adds Prairies Economic Development Canada and minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency to his portfolio.
Vandal said he was proud to return along with the new elements of mandate. He was asked what he’s doing to help with Iqaluit’s pressing water crisis.
“A long-term solution is infrastructure based,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with the city, the territory and the infrastructure minister to arrive at a long-term solution.”
Bennett’s new title is minister of mental health and addictions and associate minister of health.
She became subject of controversy this year after she sent then-Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould a text that Wilson-Raybould posted online and called “racist and misogynist.”
Bennett apologized shortly after, but some First Nations leaders urged her to resign.
After Trudeau’s ill-considered vacation in Tofino, B.C., New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said Trudeau could make amends by “removing Carolyn Bennett, who has spent millions of dollars obstructing rights for residential school survivors, from cabinet.”
She declined to address those criticisms when asked.
“I am extraordinarily proud of what we’ve been able to do,” she said. “The importance of reconciliation from coast to coast to coast has never been higher. We’ve got tons more work to do and I will continue in my portfolio.”
Bennett is a former family doctor, long-time MP who has held her Toronto riding since 1997 and former critic for the Liberals when Stephen Harper was in power.
After Trudeau was elected in 2015, Bennett became minister of the department then known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
She led the dissolution and restructuring of the department into two new ones in 2017.
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) was given a mandate to renew nation-to-nation relations between government and First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) got a mandate to devolve delivery of programs and services to communities.
CIRNAC received the old department’s negotiating branches while ISC received responsibility for the Indian Act and had the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch migrated from Health Canada over to it.
Jane Philpott was ISC’s first minister, but she resigned from cabinet in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould during the SNC Lavalin scandal. Seamus O’Regan took over in January 2019. But he was shuffled after Trudeau won his second election and first minority later that year.
Marc Miller was appointed to the post after serving as Bennett’s parliamentary secretary. Since then his performance has been reviewed more positively.
AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said on Nation to Nation last week that Miller has been “a really strong ally as a minister.” But he failed to deliver on the Liberals’ signature pledge to end all on-reserve boil-water advisories by March 2021.
“I don’t have the luxury of having just one priority,” Miller said when asked what his number one goal is this time. His approach will revolve around restoring broken trust by promptly addressing land claims as well as Aboriginal and treaty rights, he said.
“This relationship started with land,” Miller said in response to a question from APTN. “The relationship has been broken because of land—land theft—and it’s time to give land back. That’s just the reality of it. It’s easily said; it’s more difficultly done.”
Hajdu’s time in charge of the health file during the pandemic may serve her well at ISC. It’s a highly decentralized bureaucracy that maintains several field offices across the country where regional executives are in charge.
At headquarters, the department is facing several key health-related issues such as a promise to introduce new Indigenous health legislation and the ongoing reform of the Jordan’s Principle program.
“I have 12 First Nations in my own riding and I have worked extensively with Indigenous people,” Hajdu said. “I consider this a huge honour.”
Trudeau has lost last several female cabinet members since winning power. Alongside Philpott and Wilson-Raybould who resigned, Fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan lost her seat, so did Maryam Monsef and former infrastructure minister Catherine McKenna opted not to seek re-election.
Vancouver MP Joyce Murray takes over the fisheries portfolio. Treaty and Aboriginal fishing rights were a major issue for Jordan and may have factored into her defeat at the Nova Scotia ballot box.
David Lametti, who sponsored the government’s law regarding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, stays put at Justice Canada.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole denounced the cabinet as a “largely inexperienced and ideologically driven” bunch who have “demonstrated incompetence and a lack of accountability” in the past.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the Friday appeal deadline is a chance for the Liberals to show a new approach—new faces notwithstanding.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the cabinet position,” Singh declared at a press conference. “This government should stop fighting Indigenous kids in court. That is the wrong thing to do.”
But the prime minister refused to say whether he’s planning to appeal when asked afterward.