Claiming One’s Place – A Bigger Role for Indigenous Peoples and Parliamentarians in Ottawa

Article 4 / 9 , Vol 42 No. 2 (Summer)

Claiming One’s Place – A Bigger Role for Indigenous Peoples and Parliamentarians in Ottawa

As a part of a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Parliamentary Internship Programme, a panel was organized to discuss the historic and emerging roles of Indigenous People within the federal government and Parliament. Although unforeseen circumstances prompted a last-minute change in the line-up, a panel of current and former MPs, an academic and a public servant offered insightful commentary based on several perspectives. The panel particularly focussed on the challenges and opportunities involved in respectfully engaging a diverse population, creating self-government structures and building on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The following text has been edited and revised for length and clarity and is not a verbatim report.

Danielle Whyte, Hon. Leona Aglukkaq, Dan Vandal, MP, and Brock Pitawanakwat

Introduction : It’s my pleasure to introduce the

moderator for the next session, Danielle Whyte. She

was an intern in 1995-1996 who worked with MP Jean

Augustine of the Liberal Party and Paul Crête of the

Bloc Quebecois. She’s spent her post internship years

as a public servant, and since 2000 has been working

on Indigenous issues.

Danielle Whyte : I’m really honoured to be here

with you this morning, and I’d like to begin by

acknowledging like we did this morning, that the

land we’re gathered on is the unceded territory of the

Algonquin Nation. I’d like to offer our gratitude and

respect to the Algonquin people who are elders and


I was an intern in 95-96, I’m originally from Mi’kmaq

territory on the west coast of Newfoundland, from a

small community there. I’m of Mi’kmaq and European

ancestry. I now make my home in Ottawa where most

of my career has been focussed on Indigenous policy

and Indigenous policy issues. In preparation for the

panel I was thinking back to our intern year, 1995, and

the extent to which Indigenous issues factored into the

political agenda. I think the key question at the time

was whether the James Bay Cree in Northern Quebec

would remain as part of an independent Quebec or

whether they would secede, so despite coming on the

heels of the opioid crisis and the launch of the World

Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, it was not really an

issue at the top of the political agenda as the national

unity crisis loomed.

Fast forward 20 years and we have a government

that says this is the most important relationship – the

relationship with Indigenous people; so, with that in

mind, I’d like to bring up our panel.

When I was an intern in 1995, I believe there were

three Indigenous members of Parliament and probably

a handful more were Senators. In 2015 there were 10

Indigenous members of Parliament elected. Just out of

curiosity, who knows when the First Nations People in

Canada first got the right to vote? The answer? 1960.

So, not that long before the start of our internship

programme. The first status Indian was elected to

Parliament in 1968. Our panelists are among a very

small and esteemed group of people. If you believe

what you read on Wikipedia, only 39 Indigenous

people have served as members of Parliament since

Confederation, so I’m really honoured to welcome our

panel here this morning.

And I’d like to start by introducing the Honourable

Leona Aglukkaq who served as a Member of Parliament

for Nunavut from 2008-2015. She was the first Inuk to be

sworn into the federal cabinet, she served as Minister of

Health, Minister responsible for the Canadian Northern


Development Agency, Minister of Environment, and

the Minister for the Arctic Council. She also served

in a number of ministerial portfolios in the Nunavut

Legislative Assembly, and also on the public service

side as the deputy minister in the Nunavut government

and in the municipal government. Next, we have

Dan Vandal. He was elected in 2015 as a Member of

Parliament for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital. He’s the

parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Indigenous

Services and a former city counsellor and deputy mayor

of the city of Winnipeg. He has also served as chair of the

board of directors for the Aboriginal People’s Television

Network. And finally, I’m pleased to welcome a fellow

former intern, Brock Pitawanakwat, who was an intern

in 2002-2003. He is currently an associate professor of

Indigenous Studies at York University. Prior to joining

York, he taught at the University of Sudbury. He is a

Yellowhead research fellow and a regular contributor

to the Indigena roundtable podcast. He has also

served as a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation

Commission (TRC). The panel members will talk to us

a bit about the role of Indigenous Peoples in Parliament.

We’ve asked them to reflect on how they see their role,

what some of the unique factors and considerations

of being an Indigenous person in Parliament and in

politics are, and also to talk about their perspectives

on whether the growing understanding of Indigenous

issues that came from the work of the TRC and

jurisprudence on Indigenous rights, has changed the

way that First Nations people feel about Parliament.

Leona Aglukkaq : Good morning everyone. I was

asked to sit on this panel last night while I was sitting

on a train coming from Toronto, so my time to reflect

was limited, so I apologize first of all for that, but I’m

very happy to be here.

Left to Right: Danielle Whyte, Hon. Leona Aglukkaq, Dan Vandal, MP, and Brock Pitawanakwat.


I am an Inuk, born and raised in Canada’s Arctic.

I come from the community of Gjoa Haven, which is

located in the Northwest Passage. I grew up in the

North. My family moved from living off the land to

a settlement in the 1970s. I was educated in the North

and worked in the North for over 30 years in the public

service. How I got into politics is really accidental. I

first got involved in community politics in Cambridge

Bay and served on the council for six years. The full

time job I had at the time was with the territorial

government in education.

I moved to Iqaluit to continue that role, but I was also

involved in the creation of the Nunavut territory and

was assigned as assistant deputy minister of Human

Resources, with the Office of Interim Commission

– an organization established in 1998 to oversee the

development of the Nunavut Government prior to

April 1 1999. It’s not every day people get involved in

the creation of a new territory, in changing the map

of Canada. For over 30 years Inuit had negotiated a

modern land claims agreement that resulted in the

creation of a new territory, a new public government

for Nunavut. After serving in public service roles, I

entered politics.

I was asked to run to represent the community of

Gjoa Haven and I hadn’t been home for 18 years when

I ran. I ran against six men and won that riding. And

I can say that I would not recommend campaigning

in Nunavut in February. It is cold. I remember my

brother had given me his vehicle to drive around. I

couldn’t figure out why every morning when I got into

his truck there was no gas. “What happened?” I would

ask. “Somebody must have been driving this vehicle.”

But no, it was on auto-start when it reached a certain

low temperature. The problem was it never went off. It

was -60 and door-knocking was difficult.

I had my son when I made the switch to federal

politics. I had a three month-old campaigning in the

largest riding in Canada, probably the world; a riding

that covers three time zones. Twenty-five isolated

communities and no highways to take to drive into

the next town to door-knock. The other thing that’s

quite unique about Nunavut is that 85 per cent of

the population are Inuit. Nowhere else in Canada is

there a population makeup quite like Nunavut where

Indigenous people are a majority. Campaigning in

Nunavut is also unique in that Nunavut has four

official languages; Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, English

and French. To campaign in Nunavut, you fly to the

community, you do the radio show, and you sit there

until the phones stop ringing, get on the plane, fly to

the next town and start again. A 35-day campaign in

Nunavut is quite challenging in that there’s not enough

days to hit all 25 communities.

Why did I get involved in politics? Frustration that

things were not moving. We didn’t have a strong voice

in Nunavut to advance the intent of our land claims

agreement in a federal system. Nunavut organizations

sought for arbitration, and requested arbitration 16

times to try to get the federal bureaucracy to move on

implementing the articles that Inuit negotiated over 30


My frustration as an Inuk beneficiary from Nunavut

is that we agree to land claims agreements but

shortly thereafter they’re shelved. And, I remember

in 2008 sitting as a Member of Parliament, I literally

would carry our modern-day land claims agreement

educating bureaucracy on the various articles that

they’re responsible for. For example: procurement in

Nunavut. How is that supposed to be implemented?

Is Inuit employment important in procurement


So, I got involved. Just because there’s lack of

understanding of the history behind the intent of

what Inuit wanted from Nunavut. And what we

wanted in terms of giving us the mechanisms to see

opportunities in our region, to create opportunities for

,like employment, education.

Dan Vandal : Thank you so much. And it’s a great

honour and a pleasure to be here today on this panel.

Much like Leona, I found out about this early this

morning, actually; there was a flurry of calls, but I’m

glad I’m here.

My name is Dan Vandal. I’m from Saint-Boniface.

This is where Louis Riel is from. It is the birthplace and

the resting place of Louis Riel, the father of Manitoba

and the leader of the Metis nation. I’m a first-time

Member of Parliament but I was elected in 1995 as a

city councillor for Saint-Boniface. I’ve been in politics

since that time except for a three-year stretch beginning

in 2004 when I ran to be mayor of the city of Winnipeg

and came in second. So, I was out of politics for a few

years, but returned as a councillor in 2007. I served as

a councillor until 2014 and then decided to make the

jump in 2015 to federal politics.

For those of you who don’t know Winnipeg or Saint-

Boniface, it’s a great city. It’s cold; it’s not as cold as

where Leona comes from, but it’s still cold. It’s not a

fast growth city, yet the fastest growing demographic


in Winnipeg are young Indigenous people, principally

First Nation and Metis. That presents incredible

challenges. We all know the statistics on poverty.

There are incredible challenges but also incredible

opportunities, because Winnipeg is aging and jobs are

going to be opening up not only in government but

all over the private sector. So, it’s an opportunity for

government to partner with the private sector, with

Indigenous organisations, to try to do all sorts of

employment, training and education initiatives to make

sure that young Indigenous people can contribute to

our economy and contribute to our society in a positive


I think that’s ultimately why I became an elected

official, both at the city and at the federal government.

That’s always been my raison d’etre for doing what it is

I do. Becoming an MP, actually I found it very positive.

I am part of a team that really puts reconciliation

front and centre of everything that we do. I say that

for a few reasons. I think one of the most important

reasons is that every member, every minister of the

Liberal government has in their mandate letter a note

about how they can forward the goals of reconciliation.

Whether you’re Fisheries Minister or Finance Minister

– certainly Indigenous Services or Crown-Indigenous

Relations Minister – they have in their mandate

letter how they can move Indigenous issues and

reconciliation forward. And I think that’s incredible.

That’s an incredible starting point. And of course, we’ve

followed up with significant investments in the budget.

I’m Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of

Indigenous Services, Seamus Regan. We have five key

priorities. One is infrastructure, including water. I’m

very proud of the fact that we’ve removed 85 longterm

drinking water advisories. There’s 61 left to do

and we’re committed to getting that done by 2022. So,

infrastructure is a huge priority for us. The priorities

include education, health care and child and family


Shortly after I got here, I became chair of the

Indigenous caucus of the Liberal Party. We made a

decision early to focus on what the ministers are doing.

So, every meeting of Indigenous caucus, we managed

to book a minister to come in and explain what their

ministry doing that’s relevant to Indigenous people,

that’s important for Indigenous people and to learn

how can we help. Our job as an Indigenous caucus was

to educate ourselves on what each ministry is doing

and offer our assistance on how we can help that

ministry, offer constructive criticism and communicate

what they’re doing.

Brock Pitawanakwat: I am really honoured to

be here, as a former intern myself from 2002-2003.

I already knew at that point that I was specifically

interested in Indigenous issues, so I mentioned that in

the actual interview process and I was fortunate to be

selected. It was a challenging year for the reasons that

people have already mentioned today, as well, in terms

of managing multiple roles. I think identifying as an

Anishinaabe person, there were some other particular

challenges that I think maybe people were oblivious to.

I noticed that I had a real challenge in terms of feeling

like I was a part of this and as an Indigenous person and

First Nations person, I don’t know how many people

really thought about coming to John A. Macdonald

building this morning. Those symbolic moments come

up all the time, as an Indigenous person, if you are

reflective of your history and the experiences that your

family and community, and you even as an individual

have been affected by.

I’m also honoured to be on this panel and have the

opportunity to hear about some of the really impressive

things that are going on that people are putting a

tremendous amount of work into. I commend people

for doing that, but I wanted to kind of reserve my

comments since I am an outsider here.

I’m an academic. This is the route I took as soon as

the internship programme ended. I ended up taking a

faculty position in Saskatchewan teaching Indigenous

Studies and that’s what I’ve been doing off and on for

the last 16 years. I find that I draw on my experience as

a parliamentary intern a lot. There are many instances

in my teaching and in my research when I reflect on

the experiences of being an intern and what I was able

to observe.

I’ll just briefly mention that I ended up working for

two MPs who both were on the Aboriginal Affairs

Committee. This was at the time that the First Nations

Governance Act was going through. There was a lot of

people who were paying attention to Indigenous issues

on the Hill and it generated quite a bit of controversy

because the circumstance was such that there were no

First Nations MPs on that particular committee.

The legislation was entirely focused on First Nations

people and their communities. There is, I think, an

obvious sense of injustice to have situations where you

had a committee of settler Canadians as Members of

Parliament who were making decisions that would

have profound impacts on other people. And the MPs

sitting around the table really had very little actual skin


in the game, so to speak, in terms of an actual outcome.

It was tough to watch. And it was exhausting.

It was pointed out to me by several people that, at

the time, the committee was kind of a place where

you could go and work in the shadows. Nobody pays

too close attention to Aboriginal Affairs and Natural

Resources, so while you’re kind of figuring it out or

if you’re stumbling, not too many people noticed. I

was working for John Godfrey, an MP who wanted

to be on that committee. He could see that this is a

relationship that has been neglected historically by

Canadians and that is of primary importance. And

so, I’m really fortunate that I had that opportunity to

work with him.

I also am fortunate to have had the opportunity to

work with Senator Murray Sinclair, who was supposed

to be on this panel but was, unfortunately, unable to be

here due to family reasons, at the TRC. I was assigned

to work with him directly for the first six months and

then moved over to the research group. I know that part

of this panel, as it was envisioned, was to look at what

impact reconciliation has had in terms of Parliament

and I think the jury’s really still out. This is a crucial

period in the last several months of this government’s

mandate. There is legislation in terms of child welfare,

Indigenous languages, but there are also some really

major commitments that the current government

made while campaigning around the United Nations

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The

TRC’s calls to action were wholeheartedly endorsed

by the current prime minister. Indigenous peoples are

watching and hoping that this action will happen in

the months to come. Hopefully that isn’t forgotten in

the next campaign either because certainly my fear

is in some ways is that reconciliation is just going to

be like a box that will have to be checked after this

current mandate. I certainly hope that’s not the case

because there’s so much left to do there.

DW: So, we have time now for some questions.

Question: There’s been a lot of talk recently about

Indigenous communities or collectives forming their

own assemblies and enacting their own laws. The

parliamentary secretary referred to a government bill

which alludes to that possibility. So, for the whole

panel, what role do you foresee in having Indigenous

assemblies? If there is to be a fourth level, how will

that interact with the existing three?

DV: It’s in the Constitution that the Metis First

Nation and Indigenous nations have an inherent

right to make their own laws. And so, there’s a school

of thought that says that there’s nothing stopping

Indigenous nations now from making their own

laws and having them implemented. The purpose

of the current legislation is to identify those rights

in partnership with Indigenous Nations. What we

are doing on the child welfare issue is, I believe, that

we’ve introduced a bill that affirms that inherent

right for Indigenous Nations to make their own

laws concerning child welfare. There are standards,

there are three main principles for how it would be

implemented. There is a process whereby there would

be a negotiation – I’m not sure that’s the right word

– a discussion between the Indigenous Nation, the

provincial governments, and the federal government

because there is currently a huge role for the provinces

in child welfare. After a year of that discussion, if

there is not agreement on the law then the law of the

Indigenous Nation would take precedence over both

the provincial and the federal law. So that’s being

discussed right now as I speak. I’m the first to say

it’s only a beginning. There’s still a long, long road

to go on that issue but that’s a prime example, a reallife

example of where our government is affirming an

inherent right for nations to make their own laws. So,

I’m not sure if that answers your question but that’s

something we’re working on right now.

BP: Sir, I’ll just say really quickly I think one of

the challenges is coming at it from the First Nations

perspective. I‘m doing a policy brief right now for

the Yellow Head Institute on the Anishinaabe selfgovernment

negotiations. So often it seems like what

we’re being offered is actually just to manage our own

poverty. There’s almost nothing there about really

changing the fiscal relationship and similar control

over Indigenous land and resources. First Nations

people and Inuit people would have had 100 percent

of the Canadian land mass not that long ago, now it’s

less than 1 percent. In terms of the actual willingness

politically to transform that, it seems like so often

we’re still dealing with distractions. The fear is,

essentially, self-government means we’re going to be

self-governing our own misery. That’s my fear.

LA: Thank you for that question. My focus will be

on Nunavut and Inuit. Twenty, twenty-five years ago

Nunavut was created. We’re a very young region. And

I mentioned in my opening remarks that Nunavut is

unique in that nowhere else in Canada do we have

a population where 85 percent of the population

is Indigenous. How do we ensure that we deliver

programs reflective of the population we’re serving?

Nunavut was created around that idea.


The public government for Nunavut was created

as a result of Inuit negotiating their land claims

agreement. We Inuit asked for government to deliver

essential services including education, and health,

and the ability to make and enforce law. Right now

in Nunavut we have a 100 per cent Inuit cabinet.

We have an Inuk premier and all cabinet ministers

are Inuit. Our leader is a representative of the Inuit

land claims agreement. I got involved in politics

because I saw there were opportunities for us in

Nunavut. We have a region rich in resources. And

in our claim, we negotiated land ownership of those

regions that are rich in resources. We established the

Institute of Public Government that would oversee

how those developments would occur by Inuit.

And projects don’t always proceed. Responsible

resource development, as stewards of our land, is

very important to us. Because we depend on wildlife

for food, just like you depend on your farms for your

beef and pork and chicken. The regime we established

is unique in Canada. It’s not perfect but it gives us

the legal mechanism to oversee development on our

terms and to educate.

It’s a pretty good model, in my view, in that we

are at the table making decisions on how projects

will proceed. Could it be improved? Absolutely. I

mean this is why we’re in politics and government

is how we make things better. And it evolves. A

solution 10 years ago may not be relevant today.

With that understanding, how do we move forward?

By engaging with us. Don’t study us from afar and

come up with solutions that you think are right for us.

Engage us. You know there’s a wealth of knowledge

among people. And you know I’m very proud as

Arctic Council member to have put forward a policy

regime that incorporated Indigenous traditional

knowledge into science. How do we make scientific

study about the North more relevant to us and how

do researchers tap into that untapped wealth and

knowledge of Indigenous people in the Arctic to

make better decisions about climate change, about

our environment, about wildlife management, and so


Question: My question is sort of a procedural

or institutional question. Given the number of

departments and agencies in the government of

Canada and the number and diversity of Indigenous

peoples across Canada, how can we manage these

nation-to-nation relationships in a way that’s coherent

and that’s consistent over time? In my experience,

from the public servant perspective, often public

servants look at Indigenous peoples like they belong

to a school of fish. They say, well they all look the

same to me, why do I have to shake hands with all

these fish? And then, we will see something on the

Indigenous side. They’re looking at the governments

of Canada and say well the government is one

octopus. Why do I have to shake all of its hands? If

we’re ever talking to an Indigenous nation, I might be

one of 50 different public servants to have contacted

that first nation this month. So how can we structure

this relationship in a different way?

DV:  The important issue is that I don’t think

Canadians really value the diversity of Indigenous

Nations. There are over 600 First Nations all

across Canada and over 70 Indigenous languages,

geographically diverse and that’s just First Nations.

I believe groups can work better together, but it’s

a challenge. I won’t even talk about government

diversity; I’m still working on that one. We’ve actually

split up Indigenous Affairs to Crown-Indigenous

Relations and Indigenous Services as a way to be

more effective. The prime minister and the ministers

have set up approximately 50, probably more, round

tables with various nations that meet regularly to

update government on what the important issues

are with ministers present. I’m sure the high level

of administrative help allows everyone to hear the

same message and allows everyone to work towards,

I hope, the same solutions.

BP: Looking at it from the community perspective,

one of the great frustrations is there tends to be a

lot more turnover on the government’s side than

there is on the community side. Those people live

there, they’re from there. A representative from

the government, especially if it’s younger staffers

who are coming through so often things like selfgovernment

tables, changes often. There is a lot

of education that the community has to do for the

people who are coming in that they’re negotiating

with. It’s is an incredibly tough situation and the

importance of patience is huge.

And one of the things to think about is the diversity.

People sometimes talk about Europe and say: “Oh

it’s amazing, you can drive an hour and there’s a

whole other country, another language, another

history.” Well check that and actually pay attention

to all the Indigenous Nations that you have here. It’s

complex. Turns out if you colonised 60 to 80 nations,

you’re going to have an administrative mess on your

hands. So maybe if people keep that in mind, they

might be a little more patient when working with