Prime minister-elect Justin Trudeau has made a number of significant commitments so far, from pulling Canadian troops out of the muddled waters of the war in Syria and Iraq, to proclaiming an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women will begin “quickly”, to announcing his cabinet will comprise an equal number of men and women for the first time in Canadian history.
Trudeau won the election on the promise of change, and this is a prime minister seemingly unafraid of making waves.
One department within the government is thought of by many as part of the problem and not the solution: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. It is associated with residential schools, the sustained neglect of the reserve system, food insecurity, decades-long boil water advisories, a bloated bureaucracy, and nepotism.
On Nov. 4, when Trudeau unveils his cabinet, he has the opportunity to take a step in the right direction in decolonizing a deeply colonial department, by appointing the first Indigenous person to the role of minister. The Liberal Party has eight Indigenous people to choose from, and the obvious choice is Labrador MP Yvonne Jones.
Of the 68 former ministers responsible for the “affairs” of Indigenous peoples in this country, none have been Indigenous, and only two have been women. By contrast every minister responsible for the Status of Women in Canada has been female since 1981, and it would be unheard of to have it otherwise. Why not an Indigenous person to lead Aboriginal Affairs?
As an Indigenous woman, Jones would be there to help lead Canada’s government through what many Indigenous people see as Trudeau’s most important pledge of the campaign, a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. As an Indigenous woman, Jones has called for an inquiry in the House of Commons, and has spoken with families of missing and murdered women in her own riding. Jones could relate to Indigenous families in ways that no other government minister could before, and act as a guide for the Trudeau government.
Breath of fresh air
The previous minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, was viewed by many Indigenous people as adversarial or even callous.
He ignored the repeated calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. He said the suicide epidemic haunting Indigenous youth was the responsibility of their parents. In many ways Valcourt's relationship with the Indigenous peoples with whom his department was supposed to work summed up the Harper government’s overall relationship with the First Peoples of this country.
After the Harper government’s Prentice, Strahl, Duncan, and Valcourt, having Jones in this position would feel like a breath of fresh air.
Jones was a member of Trudeau’s formerly 34-seat Liberal caucus, acting as critic for Northern Development, including the notorious Nutrition North program, and was critic for the Arctic Council, and Search and Rescue. It would only make sense for her to expand her portfolio by adding Aboriginal Affairs to her work in Northern Development.
As an Indigenous person, Jones knows firsthand what the federal government’s neglect feels like. She is a member of Labrador’s Southern Inuit, NunatuKavut, a group that has been fighting for a land claim and recognition for 25 years. Jones has served in provincial and federal politics, and she is known locally as a hard worker for the people in her riding.
One could make the case for any of the other seven Indigenous members of the Liberal caucus, such as former Winnipeg mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who ousted long-time NDP MP Pat Martin, or Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former chief and now MP in the newly formed riding of Vancouver-Granville. Yet Jones is the only incumbent that has been part of Team Trudeau since day one.
Key member of Team Trudeau
During her victory speech, as a Liberal majority swept westward from the Atlantic, Jones declared that Labradorians have always seen the leadership potential of Trudeau.
In the spring of 2013, when Trudeau was the newly minted leader of the Liberal Party, he came to Labrador for an important federal by-election to support Jones. She was running against Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Peter Penashue, who had pledged to run again after allegations of overspending during the 2011 election; his failed re-election bid would become the first of many for the Conservative Party. Jones is the House’s only returning Indigenous MP besides the NDP’s Romeo Saganash.
Nothing will ever erase the colonial legacy of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. The department still has a very long way to go, but if Trudeau wants to develop a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples that respects rights and honours treaties,” appointing an Indigenous woman like Yvonne Jones as the first Indigenous minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada would be a tremendous move in the right direction.