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Trudeau splits Indigenous affairs, names personal friend to veterans affairs

Seamus O'Regan arrives Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to shuffle his cabinet today.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
August 28, 2017 - 8:45 PM

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used a mid-mandate mini-shuffle Monday to shore up his cabinet in two areas where his government has fallen far short of his soaring campaign rhetoric: veterans and Indigenous affairs.

In the most dramatic move, Trudeau split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two separate departments and appointed one of his most reliable, competent ministers, Jane Philpott, to one of them — a move billed as ending the "colonial" approach to Indigenous Peoples, with the ultimate goal of encouraging self-government and doing away with the "paternalistic" Indian Act.

He also named a personal friend, rookie MP and former television host Seamus O'Regan, to the veterans affairs post, replacing Kent Hehr, who has been heavily criticized for dragging his feet on the Liberals' promise to restore lifelong disability pensions for injured ex-soldiers.

But nowhere were Trudeau's campaign promises more likely to come back to bite him than on the aboriginal file. Upon taking office, he raised sky-high expectations with his assertion that "no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership."

But since then his vaunted inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has gone off the rails before really getting started, the suicide crisis in some First Nations communities continues unabated and the government has been denounced by some Indigenous leaders for its failure to ensure the same level of services for aboriginal children as is available for non-aboriginal children.

With criticism coming from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and many Indigenous leaders starting to lose patience, Trudeau made the dramatic gesture of announcing that he's splitting up Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

"There's a sense that we've pushed the creaky old structures around INAC about as far as they can go," he told a news conference after a swearing-in ceremony that was punctuated with Indigenous prayers and singing.

"This is about recognizing that the structures in place at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada were created at a time where the approach around the Indian Act, the approach around our engagement with Indigenous Peoples was very much looked at in a paternalistic, colonial way."

Philpott leaves the health portfolio, where she showed her mettle negotiating new health-care agreements with the provinces and stickhandling the emotionally charged issue of medical assistance in dying, to take charge of a new department of Indigenous services.

INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, with a new focus on accelerating self-government and establishing the promised nation-to-nation relationship.

However, how exactly INAC will be split up remains to be worked out in consultation with Indigenous Peoples.

The shuffle was prompted by Judy Foote's resignation last week as minister of public services and procurement. O'Regan's appointment ensures Newfoundland and Labrador's continued representation at the cabinet table and puts a professional communicator in charge of the problem-plagued veterans' file.

Another rookie backbencher, New Brunswick's Ginette Pettipas Taylor, takes over the health portfolio.

Hehr, who was paralysed in a drive-by shooting when he was just 21, replaces Carla Qualtrough as minister of sport and persons with disabilities while Qualtrough was promoted to fill the vacancy left by Foote in public services.

Public services is widely seen as one of the toughest portfolios in cabinet, responsible for handling defence procurement challenges, Canada Post and the troubled Phoenix pay system, under which thousands of public servants have been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

Qualtrough called the Phoenix fiasco "unacceptable" and said the prime minister has already told her fixing it is a priority.

"You deserve to be paid for the work that you've done and you deserve to be paid properly," she said, adding that she'll be working "to remedy this as soon as possible."

In terms of cabinet newcomers, the 46-year-old O'Regan, a former CTV television personality, was a marquee choice.

O'Regan and his husband were among the friends who accompanied Trudeau on a controversial family vacation last Christmas to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims.

The previous Christmas, O'Regan spent the holidays in a "wellness centre" where he received treatment for alcoholism. He has openly discussed his struggles with alcoholism and mental illness.

On Monday, O'Regan cheerfully fielded questions about his recovery from alcoholism, insisting that "purposeful work" is the best remedy for him.

"This is sweet," he said. "I feel great. My medical team is very happy with me and my progress."

— With files from Lee Berthiaume, Kristy Kirkup and Terry Pedwell

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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