Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (formerly Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) is a federal department responsible for the development of policies pertaining to First Nations, Métis, Inuit and Northern communities. As the primary link between the federal government and Indigenous peoples in Canada, the department’s main focus is Indigenous self-government, economic development, improved quality of life, efficient management of Indigenous land, resources and money, and northern development.

Historical Antecedents

The antecedents of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) stretch back to the British imperial government in North America. During the Seven Years’ War, the British government sought to counter the French–Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal allies, such as the Haudenosaunee.

In 1830, the Indian Department was transferred from British military to civilian government control. This reflected the fact that Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal peoples, but left the mechanics of this endeavour largely up to Christian missionaries and put limited resources behind the concept of assimilation (see Residential Schools.)

Control of Aboriginal 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.

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 Aboriginal 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. 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 Aboriginal reserve lands “in trust,” as well as with encouraging the assimilation of Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal peoples could achieve self-sufficiency.

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.

Modern Department

In 1966, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) 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. Parks Canada became the responsibility of the minister of the Environment in 1979 and of Canadian Heritage in 1993.

An Office of Native Claims was established in 1974 to represent the government in claims negotiations with Aboriginal groups. 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.

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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal authorities; and negotiating substantive Aboriginal self-government.

In November 2015, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada became Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The current minister of the department is Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett. Past ministers have included Jean Chrétien (1968–74) and David Crombie (1984–86).

The thrust of INAC programs is to implement Aboriginal 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 INAC focus on its main aims of Aboriginal self-government, economic development for Aboriginal peoples, a better quality of life in Aboriginal communities, better management of Aboriginal nations' land, resources and monies, and northern development.