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REFILE CORRECTING IDENTITY Canada's new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Carolyn Bennett was a good, assiduous Liberal critic on what was then called aboriginal affairs. Now she is the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, a portfolio that has a fair share of pitfalls.

Wisely, she is not taking literally the Liberal platform's promise to "immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls," known as MMIW. Instead, she wants to consult the families of the victims first.

Not so wisely, Ms. Bennett wants to model her inquiry on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in 1996. One of the virtues of an MMIW inquiry will be (we trust) an intense focus on a quite specific pathology and a dreadful tragedy.

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In contrast, the retired civil servant Harry Swain rightly said in his book Oka: A Political Crisis and its Legacy that the five-volume, dust-gathering multidoorstopper of the royal commission had "terms of reference so broad as to be unmeetable," and was "dead on arrival." Few of its recommendations were implemented.

The report of the MMIW inquiry has every promise of being far more valuable and effective than the RCAP, if done right.

On Wednesday, someone said to Ms. Bennett, "Consider yourself to be the minister of reconciliation." It was a moving remark; let's hope she does contribute to harmony.

But the word "reconciliation" now has a particularly charged meaning. The Liberal platform promises to enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though many of them do not lend themselves to being enacted as law.

Specifically, the platform promises to legally bind Canada to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes a right to self-determination and "the right to determine their political status."

Ms. Bennett's colleague Stéphane Dion, now the Minister of Foreign Affairs, should take a careful look at this. Back in 1999, he was the author of the Clarity Act, on secession, limiting claims to the right of a province to self-determination. At the time, this was of course about Quebec. It would be surprising if Mr. Dion, in his new role, thinks an international treaty such as UNDRIP should entitle an indigenous First Nation, or reserve, to claim unilateral secession from Canada.

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