OTTAWA — Five months after the prime minister split the federal Indigenous affairs file into two new departments, it still remains unknown how employees and operating budgets will be divided.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott briefed media Tuesday on the structure and priorities of her department, including health, education, children and families, infrastructure and a "new fiscal relationship."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in August the establishment of two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Indigenous Services.
When pressed for a clearer picture of how the two departments will operate, Philpott's deputy, Jean-François Tremblay, gave a ballpark figure of $9 billion for Indigenous Services' annual budget. But he hedged, "It's still too early in terms of the budget."
Despite these lingering operational questions, the minister spoke readily about the planned obsolescence for Indigenous Services as a federal department. As more Indigenous communities move towards self-governance, she said, "this department should disappear over time."
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is currently leading consultations to help determine the responsibilities and workflows of the two departments.
This department should disappear over time.Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott
Philpott spoke frankly about the challenges her department faces. She addressed concerns about First Nations child welfare, calling the disproportionate number of Manitoban Indigenous children in foster care a "humanitarian crisis."
Almost 90 percent of the 10,700 children in foster care in the province are Indigenous.
Ottawa is hosting an emergency meeting this week to address the issues related to Indigenous child welfare. The point of the meeting is to not assign blame, Philpott said, but to find solutions to move forward.
The minister also delivered an update on the government's pledge to end long-term drinking water advisories before March 2021.
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Since the Liberals formed government in November 2015, 40 long-term drinking advisories have been lifted and 26 have been added. There are currently 91 long-term drinking water advisories in effect.
An additional 21 communities are being monitored by the department and are on short-term drinking-water advisories. Long-term advisories are considered to be ones that last more than a year. Short-term advisories are categorized as ones lasting weeks.
'We can't be in denial about this': Philpott
The minister didn't shirk away from the observation that many of the items she presented at the briefing are "bleak" updates.
"We can't be in denial about this. We have had a relationship with Indigenous peoples in the past that's been based on the denial of their rights. Where there has been inadequate funding in a whole range of areas. And where real people's lives are suffering as a result," Philpott said.
She continued by saying it would be "irresponsible" for the government to ignore these facts.
"It's by acknowledging both where things are and how we got into these circumstances that we'll be able to work with communities to support the solutions that they have been waiting to put in place," she said.
"It's a recognition of reality and it's a recognition of the work to be done."
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