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Aboriginal Affairs minister resignation brings mixed reaction

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 25, 2013

John Duncan, minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, resigned on Feb. 15 after writing a character reference letter to the Canadian Revenue Agency on a constituent's behalf.

"In June of 2011, I wrote a character reference letter to the Tax Court of Canada on behalf of an individual to whom my constituency staff was providing casework assistance on a Canada Revenue Agency matter," Duncan said in a statement. "While the letter was written with honourable intentions, I realize that it was not appropriate for me, as a minister of the Crown, to write to the tax court. I have therefore offered my resignation as minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to the prime minister, which he has accepted."

Premier Stephen Harper announced the appointment of Bernard Valcourt, an MP from New Brunswick, as the new minister.

He replaced Heritage Minister James Moore, who was serving as the acting Aboriginal Affairs minister.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington said he believed Duncan's relationship with aboriginal Canadians was weak.

"Mr. Duncan has been pretty ineffective in dealing with First Nations during his time as minister," he said. "His record in actually making agreements with First Nations leaders has been really poor."

Bevington said in January, Harper met with First Nations leaders and announced the government will work to strengthen ties. Bevington said he hopes the next minister's appointment will reflect that promise.

"After the prime minister's statements in January where he was going to give higher priority to First Nations issues, I'm really looking forward to a cabinet appointment that would represent that," he said.

But at least one First Nations leader believes Duncan was making an effort to listen to aboriginal people.

Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said while previous chiefs had been unsuccessful in meeting with the minister, Duncan agreed to meet with Norwegian last December.

"I know our past grand chiefs had made a number of attempts to meet with him and they were turned down," he said. "My sense from him was that he's hard-lined, but he's reasonable."

Norwegian said he and Duncan discussed the Dehcho Process and other issues during the meeting, which lasted longer than Norwegian expected.

"We were supposed to have a 20-minute meeting, but it ended up being almost an hour and a half," he said.

Norwegian said he emphasized the importance of working to finalize the Dehcho Process in order to move forward with devolution.

"I think we played that issue and I think, from (Duncan's) point of view, it was important that all the groups down the valley here were on side with devolution so there would be a peaceful transfer of authority to the North," Norwegian said.

Now that Duncan is gone, Norwegian said he hopes the progress made by the Deh Cho First Nations will not vanish as well.

"The first question that comes into your mind is, 'What does this mean now? Does this mean everything comes to a standstill? Are we looking at rebuilding again?'" he asked.

Bevington said it is too early to tell what affect Duncan's resignation might have on devolution negotiations.

Even without the resignation, Bevington said there are still many unanswered questions about exactly how devolution will be implemented.

"Are we going to be locked into the process the federal government has designed for us, or are we really going to have legislative authority?" he said.

Bevington said no matter what happens, devolution negotiations must continue in a timely manner in order to meet the proposed implementation deadline.

"If they're going to have implementation by April 2014, they're going to have to move fairly quickly," he said.

In a written statement the Dene Nation said it looks forward to working with Valcourt. The statement states the Dene Nation is "pleased (Valcourt) takes our legal and moral relationship very seriously."

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