Canada’s Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs has a new title, a new leader and a new stance on a potential inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Following her swearing-in for the post, Carolyn Bennett said the issue was “hugely important” and she wanted to promptly begin her work on the issue — but not before consulting with the families of victims.
“We have to end this tragedy and this epidemic,” she told reporters.
“We have committed to get going on this as soon as we can, and we’re going to have to immediately begin talking to the people who can help us get this right.”
Bennett said that she hopes to model the government’s approach after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which resulted in a 4,000-page report in 1996.
“We know we have to listen to the families, we have to listen to the legal strategy team and we know that there will be a pre-consultation in order to make sure that we get this right,” she said.
In particular, she said that commission’s pre-consultation process was integral to the report.
“We have heard from many places that’s the reason why the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was successful, because the pre-consultation was very effective,” she said.
The commission was established in 1991 in the wake of the Oka Crisis. It recommended a complete overhaul of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada, including a new royal proclamation acknowledging the right for self-determination.
A majority of the recommendations were not implemented.
While Bennett stressed the need for the inquiry, she warned against hasty action.
“We can’t just step out and announce an inquiry, it has to actually do what the families need,” she said.
“They want not only justice, they want support, but they want to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other families after this.”
Bernard Valcourt, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister under Stephen Harper, had previously rejected the need for a national inquiry.
Calls for an investigation into the issue have been growing since an RCMP review last year revealed that 1,181 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing since 1980 — 164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims.
In its summary report on the effects of Canada’s residential school system in June, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also recommended that the government establish a national inquiry.
Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said that he’s been preparing for the launch of a national inquiry from the incoming government.
“We haven’t been sitting back waiting. We’ve been moving forward, hoping that with change coming we could get a lot of files moving,” he said.
Despite Bennett’s focus on the issue on Wednesday, the newly anointed Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu told reporters that there has yet to be a discussion on “any of the details.”
“What we did talk about is the incredible platform that we put forward during the campaign and our eagerness to get started,” she said.
“We promised real change to Canadians and I believe we’re going to be able to deliver that.”
But the appearance of change from the Harper regime was consistent on Wednesday.
It was a relationship that under the former prime minister’s nearly 10-year leadership was fraught with tension, according to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
“(It) was unnecessarily adversarial, and the best interest of First Nations people weren’t really respected or looked after,” he said.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to be taking the first steps towards mending that relationship.
His swearing-in ceremony featured several nods to aboriginal culture.
First, he was ushered into Rideau Hall to the sound of a Cree drumming song.
Then the nation was charmed when two 11-year-old Inuit girls performed traditional throat-singing and repeatedly broke out into giggles, drawing applause from the crowd.
And the ceremony wrapped up with Metis children performing a dance as Trudeau and his new ministers exited the hall.
The sense of change even permeated Trudeau’s newly appointed cabinet.
For the first time, an indigenous woman was given the role of minister of justice.
“I’m immensely proud to be an aboriginal person in this country, and I’m equally proud to be a Canadian,” said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The ministry that Bennett will oversee also received a new name.
Under the Harper government, the department was known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and prior to that it was called Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
Bennett promised that she would use her new post to build a “respectful” relationship with aboriginal peoples going forward.
“‘Nothing about us, without us’: this means a partnership and First Nations, Inuit (and) Metis will have to look at legislation with us,” she said.
With files from CTV Manitoba Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon