Historical Background

The antecedents of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada stretch back to the British imperial government in North America. During the ​Seven Years’ War​, the British government sought to counter the French–Indigenous alliance by creating its first Indian Department in the Canadas, which was split into a northern and southern branch, both reporting to the British military commander. ​Sir William Johnson​, the northern superintendent, cultivated strategic alliances with Britain’s important Indigenous allies, such as the Haudenosaunee.

In 1830, the Indian Department was transferred from British military to civilian government control. This reflected the fact that Indigenous military alliances were no longer as important to Britain, which had solidified its claim over its remaining North American territories.

For the remaining decades of the colonial era, the Indian Department was organized haphazardly, as historian Brian Titley has described, “reflecting its relative unimportance.” The British Colonial Office supported a policy of assimilating Indigenous peoples, but left the mechanics of this endeavour largely up to Christian missionaries and put limited resources behind the concept of assimilation. (See also ​Residential Schools​.)

Control of Indigenous matters remained the British government’s responsibility until 1860, when the Indian Department was passed into colonial hands and was administered under the Crown Lands Department.

The BNA Act and Indian Affairs

At Confederation in 1867, responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” was given to the Canadian federal government through section 91 (24) of the British North America Act. In 1868, the Indian Branch was placed under the control of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, and the secretary of state became the head of Indian Affairs, a position that was known from this time on as the superintendent general of Indian Affairs.

In 1873, the Department of the Interior was created and the Indian Branch was placed within it. In 1880, Indian Affairs was given its own department, but the minister of the Interior continued to fill the post of superintendent general of Indian Affairs. This newly separate Department of Indian Affairs was divided into an outside and inside service. The inside service consisted of officers at headquarters in Ottawa. The outside service was composed of the many Indian agents, farm instructors and other employees across the country who dealt directly with Indigenous peoples. The outside service also included an Indian superintendent for ​British Columbia​ and an Indian commissioner for Manitoba (six Indian commissioners, in total, served in the department’s administrative control centre on the Prairies from 1873 to 1932).

The Department of the Interior and the Department of Indian Affairs were closely tied in their mandates and personnel. Except for two brief periods (the first between 1883 and 1887, and the second in 1930) the minister of the Interior held the position of superintendent general of Indian Affairs. During the years 1897 to 1902, the second-in-command (deputy) positions of the two departments were also filled by the same person.

Original Mandate

The Department of the Interior’s mandate was to promote ​western settlement​ under the ​Dominion Lands Policy​; the Department of Indian Affairs was charged with holding Indigenous reserve lands “in trust,” as well as with encouraging the assimilation of Indigenous peoples and their eventual self-sufficiency through the provisions of the Indian Act. Multiple scholars have pointed out the inherent contradiction between these two roles and have suggested that this tension allowed large-scale surrenders of reserve lands, meant to open the way for Euro-Canadian settlement, to take place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries despite the fact that a shrinking land base made it less likely that Indigenous peoples could achieve self-sufficiency.

Pre- and Post-War Restructuring

In 1936, the Department of Indian Affairs was made a branch of the Department of Mines and Resources; in 1949, it was again transferred — this time to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. It remained in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration until 1965, when it became a part of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

In 1966, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was established. A 1968 reorganization created three program areas apart from support services, and an engineering and architectural branch: Indian and Eskimo Affairs (changed to Indian and Inuit Affairs in 1978), the Northern Development Program (changed to the Northern Affairs Program in 1973) and ​Parks Canada​. Past ministers of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development included ​Jean Chrétien​ (1968–74) and ​David Crombie​ (1984–86). Parks Canada became the responsibility of the minister of the Environment in 1979 and of Canadian Heritage in 1993.

Claims Negotiations

An Office of Native Claims was established in 1974 to represent the government in claims negotiations with Indigenous nations. Claims negotiations are now handled by the Specific Claims Tribunal established in 2008, and in British Columbia through the Treaties and Aboriginal Government–Negotiations West office in Vancouver. (See also ​Indigenous Land Claims.)

Further Restructuring

As a result of departmental streamlining and restructuring, the Indian and Inuit Affairs Program (IIAP) was divided into four business lines in the mid-1990s: Claims, Indian and Inuit Programming, Northern Affairs, and Administration. As part of the restructuring, the responsibility for transfer payments to the Territories shifted to the ​Department of Finance​. The goals of the IIAP are to assist Indigenous communities to overcome obstacles to their development and to help them marshal the human and physical resources necessary to build and sustain viable communities. Priorities include: settling land claims; supporting the development of communities to improve on-reserve economic opportunities and living conditions; developing the program's management, delivery and accountability to Indigenous authorities; and negotiating substantive self-government. In November 2015, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada became Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

Main Objectives

The thrust of current federal programs in Indigenous affairs is to implement land claims, encourage more diversified and private sector economic development, achieve the transfer of provincial-type responsibility to the territorial governments, and promote environmental awareness and sustainable development. Together, these programs help the government focus on its main aims of Indigenous self-government, economic development for Indigenous peoples, a better quality of life in Indigenous communities, better management of Indigenous land, resources and monies, and northern development.

Under the Trudeau Government

In 2017, the government of ​Justin Trudeau​ implemented a recommendation of the ​Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples​ (1996) by dissolving the department and replacing it with two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Indigenous Services.

The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs oversees Indigenous-government relations, including matters pertaining to ​treaty rights​ and self-government, and northern affairs. The Department of Indigenous Services works toward improving the quality of services delivered to Indigenous peoples, with the eventual goal of having many, if not all, of these services delivered by Indigenous nations rather than the Crown. The federal government described the restructuring of INAC as a “next step” to abolishing the Indian Act.