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Indigenous leaders in the NWT are welcoming the federal government’s split of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs portfolio.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the change, which divides the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs into Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services. Carolyn Bennett, former Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, will now be Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Jane Philpott, former Minister of Health, will now be Minister of Indigenous Services.

“There really are two levels of engagement with Indigenous peoples,” said Trudeau on Monday. “One is the concrete delivery of services, whether it’s ending boil-water advisories, delivering on housing or mental health or health supports to Indigenous communities … Two, the other side of building a true nation-to-nation relationship in which our laws and policies, in which the nature of the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples needs to be improved, updated, needs to evolve.”

Trudeau said the restructuring is meant to reset the federal government’s “paternalistic, colonial” approach Indigenous people in Canada.

Liberal NWT MP Michael McLeod said this change has been a long time coming, as Bennett was carrying a very high workload as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

“There has been so much new activity in the department, there had to be some change,” he said. “This will allow it to be more streamlined.”

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Yellowknives Dene First Nation Chief Edward Sangris welcomed the change as he said the department had become too big for any one minister to handle.

The First Nation is still negotiating land claims and deals with the department for service provision in its communities. As a result, Sangris said months of waiting for a response from the department was not uncommon.

The true test, he said, will be how the Akaitcho land-claims process proceeds.

“When Trudeau got elected he said there’s going to be some changes,” he said. “But when we got to the main table of negotiations, the chief negotiator indicated to us that it was business as usual. There’s some disconnect between the leadership and the bureaucracy … The measurable success will be that we, the Akaitcho, might have a shorter time of negotiation for settling the claim.”

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said the Dene Nation wants to sit down with the federal government to ask for details.

“If we’re talking about eliminating the department, how do you phase into that?” he asked. “What has been happening to a large extent is that responsibility has been going to the territorial government and we’re not in support of that. We don’t want the territorial government to take over responsibility from the federal government. Devolution has not been a good thing for us.”

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