Manipulating structures to hide failures


Sept. 18, 2017

The decision of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to divide ministerial responsibilities for Indigenous issues reminds me of Italy’s politicians. The only difference is that while

Carolyn Bennett, pictured, has seen her ministerial responsibilities halved, and will now handle Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, while Jane Philpott takes over the management of Indigenous services. The Hill Times file photo

the latter manipulate the Italian language to camouflage their inability to solve the problem, the former is manipulating the structure to give the impression that something is different.

For example, in the Italian political idiom, the most famous term is an oxymoron, “converging parallel” lines. It was used to explain an opportunistic alliance between two ideological different parties pretending to work together while still fighting. It’s like telling people that the two railroad tracks can converge without derailing the train.

Even in Canada we sometimes try to solve problems by resorting to empty phrases. For example, we tried to define Quebec as a “distinct society” without explaining where that “distinctiveness” was taking us. We also say Quebec is “a nation within a united Canada,” which is like saying we’re a “united divided Canada.”

In Canada, however, the most powerful tool to camouflage failure, is not the manipulation of words, but the manipulation of structures. We disassemble them to make sure that everything looks different, only to reassemble the same pieces in a different order to leave everything the way it was.

Take multiculturalism. First, it was an idea without a structure, then it was a secretariat before becoming a full ministry. Then it was scaled back to a junior ministry, then it was a hyphenated word after the Ministry of Culture, and now I don’t know what it is. Multiculturalism, a wonderful idea, is like a prêt-à-porter flag used by politicians to show off during a speech or for statistics purposes to count the ethnic background of ministers in order to show openness.

After decades of discussions, promises and signed agreements, I thought that our governments knew everything about the problem and the new Liberal government was ready to move on with a solution.

After months of accusations against the previous government, rhetoric and promises to address the dramatic issues facing our Indigenous peoples, and after spinning the wheels for half of the mandate, the Trudeau government has identified the problem: minister Carolyn Bennett. The Liberals seemed to have realized that the ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada was too big to be handled by one person. The solution? Split the ministry and create two departments. One of them will oversee current affairs, while the other, under the responsibility of Bennett, will in the future draft legislation that will eventually replace the Indian Act.

Trudeau said the split was recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples about 20 years ago, but it took almost two years for his government to find this recommendation and act upon it. He promises, in fact he hopes, that by next spring there will be a new legislation and “within decades or a few generations” Indigenous peoples will be able to deliver services themselves, reported The Toronto Star.

  We should rejoice that he has ditched the “paternalistic and colonial” approach to the problem, but some are warning us not to hold our breath for real changes. Pam Palmater, associate professor and the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, told CBC that for now “they’ve just doubled the colonial structures.”

Angelo Persichilli is a former director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper, former columnist for Toronto Sun and Toronto Star.

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