Harper names land claims lawyer to cabinet

Jim Prentice, the new Indian and Northern Affairs minister, is not your typical Alberta Conservative. Sure, he’s got that reap-what-you-sow…

Jim Prentice, the new Indian and Northern Affairs minister, is not your typical Alberta Conservative.

Sure, he’s got that reap-what-you-sow work ethic, having financed his post-secondary education by working in the coal mines of the Crowsnest Pass in Southern Alberta.

Yes, his political leanings date back to the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s national energy plan provoked a backlash from western conservatives that manifests as contempt for Ottawa to this day.

And yes, he’s a white-collar Christian, having served on the board of an elite Calgary country club and volunteered regularly at his Presbyterian church.

But Prentice is no Reformer.

Born in northern Ontario, Prentice was a Progressive Conservative all his life, which makes him a traditional Alberta Conservative, but not one of those caught up in the Reform frenzy led by Preston Manning in the mid-90s.

However, he was integral to the merger between the Tories and the PCs that led to the creation of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Prentice ran for the leadership of the PC party against Peter McKay in a 2003 leadership convention.

Prentice lost on a second ballot after Saskatchewan farmer David Orchard endorsed McKay’s campaign on the condition that McKay would not merge the Tories with the Canadian Alliance led by Stephen Harper.

The forbidden merger was subsequently made, Harper became leader of the newborn Conservative Party and Orchard was quietly put out to pasture.

Prentice was first elected to the House of Commons in the 2004 election as MP for Calgary Centre North.

Having vast experience in aboriginal land claim negotiations as a lawyer and consultant with the Alberta government, he was chosen as the Conservative Northern Affairs critic.

In opposition, he provoked the ire of some of his constituents by breaking ranks with the Conservative Party and voting in favour of same-sex marriage.

“For me, the marriage question is one of individual liberty — of constitutional liberty,” Prentice said in a statement on his website, www.jimprentice.ca.

“What moral or political authority do we have to deny gay Canadians the issuance of a government marriage license?” asked the 49-year-old husband and father of three daughters.

“The answer in my mind is clear. We have no such right at all because whether two people of the same sex marry, and how and whether their gender enters into the relationship, is none of the government’s business, providing they do no harm to anyone else.”

Controversy continued to dog Prentice’s voting record when he voted against an historic bill detailing a land claim settlement for the Tlicho people in the NWT in 2004, saying that “it compromises, to some degree, Canada’s capacity to exercise its international sovereignty.”

He was worried about setting a precedent that would erode federal power in the North.

But the Tlicho agreement passed.

“My opinion hasn’t changed about what is in the overall best interests of Canada,” Prentice said in an interview Friday.

“The agreement is now part of the constitutional framework of the country, and our obligation is to get on with things.”

Nevertheless, “the minister that has been chosen as a champion for the North has voted against a northern land claim,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, who described his relationship with Prentice as mutually respectful.

“We had different views upon (the Tlicho agreement), but we certainly developed a relationship through that debate,” said Bagnell.

Prentice was re-elected January 23 with 56 per cent of the vote in his riding.

He was sworn in to cabinet last Monday, replacing former Liberal minister Andy Scott.

The department’s first priority are the Kelowna agreements signed at the First Ministers’ meeting in November 2005, said Prentice.

Developed over 14 months of consultations, the agreements promise $5.1 billion over five years from Ottawa to close the poverty gap between mainstream Canada and aboriginal communities.

During the election, Harper said the Conservatives agreed with the founding principles of the accord but important details, like how the money would be split, still had to be worked out.

And Conservative finance critic Monte Solberg said the agreements were “crafted at the last moment on the back of a napkin on the eve on,” and promised not to honour them if elected, according to media reports.

But now that the Conservatives are elected, Prentice is playing a slightly different tune.

“We need to build a sustainable finance plan around (the agreements) that respects the targets and objectives but also respects the budgetary realities of the government,” he said.

“There had been discussions between some of the participants and the government about a finance plan, but not everybody saw it, and certainly it was not privy to people, like myself, who were there as observers.

“Obviously the first challenge of the new government is to come in and get a handle on the finances of Canada and determine what’s achievable.”

Prentice anticipates meetings with aboriginal leaders within two weeks.

The second priority he mentioned was “defining a northern vision that reflects the aspirations of northerners.”

And third on the list was the prospect of pipelines.

“Pipelines plural, the McKenzie Valley pipeline and also the Alaska Highway pipeline,” said Prentice.

“I’ve started the process of getting briefed on those files. We’ll be quite active in moving those files forward.”

But he’s even more gung-ho for land claims negotiation and implementation, having spent much of his professional life as a claims negotiator and a commissioner with the federal Indian claims commission.

“I’m committed to the claims process, both comprehensive and specific claims,” he said.

“Most of the parties that have signed comprehensive claim settlements have been frustrated by the inability of the former government to implement the agreements that they’ve signed.”

So the Liberals weren’t the best at land claims negotiations, according to Prentice.

But the Conservatives are newbies to government, and they didn’t win any of the territorial seats.

“The good news is I think (Prentice) is one of the most sensitive members of his party to aboriginal issues,” said Bagnell.

“But the bad news is that his party has such a long way to go, I’m certainly hoping that he will stick up and champion aboriginal and northern issues in his cabinet.”