Native leaders concerned about new minister

OTTAWA — John Duncan’s first act as Canada’s new Indian affairs minister is being welcomed by aboriginals, but some are still worried about the “old” Duncan.

OTTAWA — John Duncan’s first act as Canada’s new Indian affairs minister is being welcomed by aboriginals, but some are still worried about the “old” Duncan.

Duncan issued a government apology this week to Inuit families who were uprooted from their homeland in northern Quebec and moved to desolate spots in the High Arctic during the 1950s.

His soothing words and conciliatory attitude were in stark contrast to past statements adamantly opposing anything that smacked of special treatment for natives.

His past denunciations of “race-based” laws and government policies seem to make Duncan an odd fit for his new post, in which he’s responsible for upholding the unique constitutional, treaty and land title rights of aboriginals.

Some native leaders are concerned, wondering if Duncan’s appointment this month heralds a new hardline approach to native issues by the Harper government.

But others are convinced the minister’s views — along with those of the Conservative government itself — have evolved over the years. And they’re cautiously optimistic they’ll be able to make some progress with Duncan in advancing the aboriginal rights agenda.

“The way that I look at it is these are really complicated issues that we’re dealing with as First Nations people and opinions change or evolve,” said Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of British Columbia’s Assembly of First Nations.

As a constituent in Duncan’s Vancouver Island North riding, Wilson-Raybould has found him to be decent, unassuming, respectful and hard working.

“He has that quiet way about him. He also presents himself as a genuinely good person, one that understands the issues that we face . . . I think his heart’s in the right place.”

Wilson-Raybould refuses to dwell on statements Duncan made during his years in opposition — such as his 1998 warning that a “race-based” native fishery in B.C. amounted to “racial tinkering” that would inevitably lead to “racial tension.”

She prefers to focus on his more recent stint as parliamentary secretary to Chuck Strahl, his predecessor. In that role, she found Duncan to be knowledgeable and open-minded on the complex issues facing First Nations people.

Not everyone, however, is so quick to forgive and forget Duncan’s past statements.

“I certainly have been aware of his (past) outspoken opposition to indigenous rights in general,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “It remains to be seen whether he can know and understand that his responsibilities for aboriginal people demand that he subordinate his biased views and must recognize and respect our unique constitutional status and rights.”

Among other things, Duncan has spoken out against differential sentencing for native offenders, which in 2003 he called “another symptom of the government promoting not criminal justice but justice for criminals.” He opposed the historic Nisga’a treaty, the first modern-day treaty in B.C., conferring a significant measure of self-government to the Nisga’a. He predicted the treaty, finalized in 2000, would “haunt Canadians for generations to come.” and said it amounted to a rejection of “one law for all Canadians.”

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he’ll be watching carefully to see if Duncan clings to some of the views he held so strongly while in opposition. But he’s prepared to give Duncan a chance to prove his thinking has evolved since then.

“I’m prepared to give every opportunity, obviously with an eye to things that may have been said in the past but I’m certainly not going to base my approach on what was said in the past.

“We’ll base our approach on things that are done in the here and the now and in the coming months.”

Atleo said he’s reasonably optimistic Duncan’s actions as minister will prove stronger than his words in opposition. He noted that it was not just Duncan but the entire Conservative party and its predecessors — the Reform party and the Canadian Alliance — that used to rail against so-called preferential treatment of aboriginals.

But the party’s stance has softened in government, starting at the top with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who initiated the historic apology to victims of abuse at residential schools.

Duncan followed that up Wednesday with the apology to the Inuit families.

Atleo also noted that Harper has signalled his intention to finally endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, after three years of stubbornly refusing to sign on. And he said Harper has told him he’s eager to work with the AFN on devolving more responsibility for education to First Nations.

“There has been a recognition, I think, on the government’s part — and my hope is that on John’s part — that we need to get on with some solutions and leave that sort of high-level, rhetorical back-and-forth that’s gone on for far too long.”

Duncan’s office declined a request for an interview about the minister’s past and current views.

In an email, spokeswoman Michelle Yao said Duncan is honoured by his appointment and plans to focus on “working with partners, aboriginal leaders, provincial and territorial counterparts to address important issues such as education, social and economic development and capacity building/self-government.”

“He looks forward to ensuring all aboriginal people have access to the same opportunities that all Canadians have.”