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Marc Miller touts progress on reconciliation, has harsh words for Poilievre

September 8, 2023

Miller reflects on leaving Indigenous portfolios after 5 years

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec.15, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Marc Miller says he faced pushback from the public service during his time working in Indigenous portfolios. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Warning: This story contains language that some readers might find offensive

CBC News: Marc Miller — who held two Indigenous affairs cabinet portfolios before he was shuffled over the summer — says he believes the Liberal government has made substantial and “irreversible” progress on reconciliation, despite what he described as strong pushback from the bureaucracy.

Miller’s move to the immigration portfolio upset many Indigenous leaders, who told CBC News his heart was in the right place and they worked well with him. Others described his tenure as disappointing.

In spite of some progress, Miller failed to deliver on the Liberals’ promise to end all long term on-reserve boil water advisories and was rebuked for moving too slowly on implementing changes called for by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Miller said he doesn’t believe Indigenous people will be persuaded by promises of a “different approach” from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, whose party is now consistently leading the Liberals in the polls. “He’s a serial bullshitter,” said Miller, who represents the riding of Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœurs in Montreal.

“Indigenous people have one of the best bullshit sensors in this country. They see people like him coming a mile away.”

Marc Miller, then-Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister (right), said a proposed settlement for First Nations child welfare compensation was one of his biggest achievements.
Assembly of First Nations Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse, left, and Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, centre, listen to then-Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Marc Miller during an Ottawa news conference in January 2022. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Miller made the statements in a recent interview with CBC News about changing portfolios after working directly on Indigenous issues for five years.

Responding to Miller’s broadside against Poilievre, the Conservatives were quick to lay some of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s major reconciliation missteps at Miller’s feet. In a media statement, the Conservatives said Miller “stood by” and defended Trudeau’s “appalling behaviour” when the prime minister expelled from cabinet the first Indigenous justice minister, Jody-Wilson Raybouldridiculed an Indigenous protester raising concerns about mercury poisoning at a Liberal fundraiser and attempted to ban hunting rifles used in Indigenous communities.

“All the while, his Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations stood by and defended this appalling behaviour, all while restricting opportunities for resource development by First Nations and Métis communities and obstructing their financial freedom,” said Sebastian Skamski, Conservative Party spokesperson.

“Despite the Liberals’ promises, Indigenous people, like all Canadians, are worse off after eight years of his Liberal government’s top-down, Ottawa-knows-best policies.”

Toughest clashes behind closed doors

Miller became parliamentary secretary in 2018 to then-minister of Crown-Indigenous relations Carolyn Bennett.  In 2019, he was sworn into cabinet as Indigenous Services minister. He took on the role of Crown-Indigenous relations minister after the 2021 federal election.

Miller also received mixed reviews from leading Indigenous voices.

“He was disappointing,” said Ellen Gabriel, whose Mohawk name is Katsi’tsakwas. She’s from Kanehsatà:ke, the Indigenous community at the centre of the Oka crisis in Quebec. While Miller did make an effort to build relationships within Kanehsatà:ke, Gabriel said he failed to resolve any of the long-standing land claim issues that predated and led to the 1990 standoff between the Canadian military and protesters in the community.

“While he is a decent person … what he did was just abandon Kanehsatà:ke, which should have been one of the examples of reconciliation in Canada,” said Gabriel, who was a spokesperson for Kanehsatà:ke during the conflict. 

Gabriel said she isn’t confident new Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree will do anything differently. “It’s the bureaucrats who hold the line for the status quo of racism, systemic racism, in Canada,” Gabriel said.

Ellen Gabriel, whose Mohawk name is Katsi’tsakwas, was a spokesperson for Kanehsatà:ke during the 1990 Oka crisis in Quebec.
Ellen Gabriel, whose Mohawk name is Katsi’tsakwas, said Marc Miller should have done more for her community of Kanehsatà:ke. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Miller acknowledged some of his toughest clashes on the Indigenous files were fought behind closed doors.  “My biggest battles and fights and challenges have been with our own institutional mechanisms,” he said. 

Miller said he shared his experiences with United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland while discussing the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. “I said to her, ‘Your biggest challenge will be your own cabinet and your own institutions,'” Miller said.

Miller said he had many difficult conversations with people who dedicated their careers to public service, but whose institutional thinking had to change in order to allow Indigenous Peoples to reclaim the jurisdiction and power that was taken from them.

“You’re dealing with some of the brightest minds in the country that have dedicated themselves to Canada and saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to change this course, we’ve got to move this faster, we’ve got to start listening to people as opposed to deciding policy from the basement of your department,'” he said.

‘A fair dealer’

Miller also acknowledged he left the Indigenous portfolios with unfinished business. The government is still trying to eliminate on-reserve boil water advisories after it failed to lift them all by a self-imposed deadline of March 2021.

It’s also struggling to convince the Manitoba government to pay for a landfill search for missing First Nations women. Miller called the province’s refusal to fund a search “heartless.”

He said the highlights of his tenure included working with Indigenous communities through the COVID-19 pandemic and finalizing a $23.4 billion First Nations child welfare compensation agreement. The multi-billion dollar deal followed a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found Canada discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system.

Cindy Blackstock, who has been fighting Ottawa to compensate First Nations children in care for 16 years, said Miller deserves credit for the historic settlement, which is expected to get final approval by the Federal Court next month.  “He was a fair dealer,” said Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “There were times when we disagreed about issues but at least it was a respectful disagreement and you could have those conversations with him and try to problem-solve.”

When the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rejected Ottawa’s initial compensation offer, Blackstock said she had “productive” conversations with Miller and his office about how to fix the problem.

Blackstock called Miller and former Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott the most productive ministers she has worked with. She said she was displeased when he was shuffled to immigration.

A woman in glasses and a black and white striped top wearing a beaded white bear medallion smiles for the camera.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said institutional resistance within the federal government is a major barrier to reconciliation. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

“I was disappointed because I think that we have got to that place where we had an honest relationship going, and that we could have these courageous conversations when necessary,” Blackstock said.  

Blackstock also agreed with Miller’s claim that bureaucratic resistance is a major hurdle. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal said bureaucracy operates with an old mindset that allows it to double down on discrimination, she said. “It’s so normalized in the department that they sometimes don’t identify it as a problematic pattern and they aren’t very good at addressing it,” she said.

Blackstock said the public service often refuses to do the work differently, which leads to “a lot of sloth in the system.”  The public service needs to adopt more of a problem-solving attitude and the federal government must avoid pivoting to a public relations mindset when it receives complaints about its work with Indigenous Peoples, she said.

Blackstock commended Miller and Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu for breaking this habit by acknowledging ongoing discrimination within the First Nations child welfare system.

“I’m hoping that is the continuing tempo with the government,” she said. “If it’s not, then it’s simply going to result in more litigation against them.”

A job he’ll miss

Miller said he was able to do his job despite having emerged from an education system he thinks has trained Canadians not to care about Indigenous Peoples. “I just cared a lot about the people I met and the issues that they themselves taught me about,” he said.  “It’s something that I’ll miss because it’s something I really enjoyed.”

Edwin Ananas, David Pratt and Marc Miller walk in a row with a orange "every child matters" flag blowing beside them.
Edwin Ananas, chief of Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation, walks alongside David Pratt, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, and then-Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Marc Miller during a ceremony prior to announcing a $4.1 million federal settlement. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Before joining cabinet, Miller learned Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language) and delivered the first parliamentary statement in the language in 2017. It’s a skill that Miller said he will work on improving. “That has helped me immeasurably, more than any briefing, in learning about a people that our country needs to recognize more and as part of the future,” Miller said.

He said that while he’s keen to take on a new challenge with the immigration portfolio, he didn’t ask to switch jobs. “This is an area that is very personal and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t regret, have some regrets, about not being able to continue in that capacity,” Miller said.