Bernard Valcourt, Progressive-Conservative Member of Parliament for New Brunswick, has replaced John Duncan as Minister of aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND), Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on February 22.
Valcourt “will continue the Government’s work to advance dialogue on aboriginal issues and take achievable steps that will provide better education and economic outcomes for aboriginal peoples across Canada,” Harper’s office said in a statement.
“The Government remains focused on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity across Canada, including in our aboriginal communities,” said Harper. “Mr. Valcourt brings considerable and wide-ranging Cabinet experience to his new role.”
In his previous post, Valcourt was the associate minister of national defense, in charge of buying equipment for the Canadian military. In his first official statement as AAND minister he said he accepted his new position “with humility” and thanked Harper “for placing his confidence in me.”
He promised to continue the dialogue with aboriginal peoples that had been started under former AAND minister John Duncan, who resigned abruptly on February 15 for improper lobbying. The changeover comes as the grassroots Idle No More movement continues protesting the new omnibus budget Bill C-45 and its companion, C-38. Valcourt also takes office in the wake of a hunger strike by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence that galvanized Indigenous Peoples worldwide and led to a meeting between First Nations chiefs and Harper on January 11, 2013.
“I am firmly of the view that working together is the best way to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient aboriginal communities,” Valcourt said in his statement, alluding to this year’s January meeting. “I look forward to meeting with aboriginal leaders in the weeks and months to come. I also welcome the opportunity to work with the territorial governments across the north on our shared priorities.”
Valcourt has been involved with aboriginal issues before. According to CBC News, he attended the January 24, 2012, historic Crown–First Nations Gathering that included several cabinet ministers as well as the Prime Minister, Governor General David Johnston and numerous First Nations leaders. He also was the minister of state for what was then the ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development under a previous prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who served from 1987–89. Valcourt was first elected to the House of Commons in 1984.
First Nations leaders for the most part congratulated Valcourt, while putting him on notice that the dialogue begun in the wake of the recent heightened contention between aboriginals and the government would have to continue.
“This cabinet change comes at a unique time for First Nations and Canada, a true moment of reckoning where we have a commitment from the highest levels of the Government of Canada to achieve real progress and transformative change for First Nations citizens,” Assembly of First Nations Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a statement. “We hope that Minister Valcourt will work with the First Nation leadership directly to advance priority areas to achieve transformative change for our peoples. I look forward to meeting with the minister as soon as possible to discuss immediate next steps in facilitating this dialogue.”
Atleo also thanked Duncan ”for his hard work and dedication.”
The 74-member Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) also welcomed Valcourt. “We hope Minister Valcourt will have the necessary mandate from Cabinet, fully supported by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, to follow through on the commitments made by the Prime Minister on January 11, 2013,” said Chief Perry Bellegarde, speaking on behalf of the FSIN Executive, in an FSIN statement.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was less diplomatic. “It would be nice to hear the words or a statement from the new minister opposed to regurgitation from the previous minister,” he said in a statement from the AMC. “It’s quite apparent from his first ‘statement’ that there is a common thread tying ministers together in a tightly controlled authoritarian Harper regime.”
He went on to congratulate Valcourt, however, though with an admonition. “I encourage Mr. Valcourt to be open to considering the unique position of indigenous people in the Canadian nation state,” he said. “He must be grounded in evolving international standards as represented by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and must be well versed in the dark colonial history and current challenges impacting First Nations people in the application of the Indian Act.”
Fellow New Brunswick resident AFN Regional Chief Roger Augustine, felt that Valcourt’s previous experience with aboriginal issues made him well suited to the job.
“I think it’s going to be a really brief learning curve for the minister to catch up on the issues facing us,” Augustine told The Globe and Mail. “I think Bernard Valcourt can handle this, and we are anxious to get down and get to work.”