After years of complaints about the colonialist mentality of Indian Affairs, it looks like the hated federal department is on the way out. The problem is no one knows what will replace it.

The first reaction of aboriginal leaders has been very positive. “What we’re talking about here is a major shift in jurisdiction,”said Grand Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “We’re talking about making laws and enforcing laws,” he said in one news report. “There are all kinds of strings attached to the money we receive. That’s not acceptable.”

The transfer of power will begin in Manitoba, where 61 First Nations already administer 80 per cent of federal programs for aboriginal peoples. Details are still sketchy and many newspapers have so far only carried short news briefs on the important development.

Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin said some of the department’s functions won’t be dismantled for a long time, particularly the land-claims section. “Claims will probably be the last thing to go,” Irwin said in one report. Chief Fontaine said that under the deal Ottawa will still have to protect treaties with First Nations, resolve outstanding land claims and maintain its fiduciary relationship with First Nations.

The Assembly of First Nations responded to Irwin’s surprise announcement positively, praising the deal as being “on the cutting edge of the self-government process.”

The Grand Council of the Crees was also highly favourable. “I’m really glad to see a proposal to do away with Indian Affairs,” said Brian Craik, the Grand Council’s federal-relations director. “It’s the most positive development in years.”

But Craik said questions remain about specifics. The deal could in fact be yet another federal attempt to shed its treaty obligations to First Nations, he said. First Nations are also still unsure of having access to enough money to make self-government work. Connected to this question is uncertainty over how much control First Nations will have over resources on their lands. “There has to be an understanding on resources,” Craik said. “Without that, it’s unacceptable.”

The deal will have repercussions in Quebec, but exactly what those will be is unclear. “If it’s a bad deal, there will be a lot df smiling faces in Quebec,” he said, adding that Quebec could come off looking like the good guy by comparison. “But if the deal is to turn around the relationship between Canada and the First Nations, there will also have to be a re-examination of policies by Quebec, which so far has been blind to aboriginal peoples.”