Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl is either forgetful, or he has problems with his private secretary.
On Thursday, speaking to a roomful of reporters, Strahl denied he broke a date with Yukon First Nation chiefs.
The chiefs feel snubbed because, after travelling to Ottawa this week to attend a land-claims conference at which Strahl was scheduled to speak, they learned they wouldn’t have face-time with the minister, as earlier promised.
He wasn’t in Ottawa. He was in Whitehorse.
“I had never agreed to speak at the conference,” Strahl told reporters yesterday. “They announced I was going to speak.”
The Whitehorse trip had “been scheduled for some time,” said Strahl.
These comments are at odds with correspondence between Strahl’s private secretary and a conference organizer.
Madeleine Hamelin, Strahl’s secretary, wrote to organizer Patti Black on March 26 to confirm that Strahl would speak at the conference.
“Minister will speak for 12 minutes,” Hamelin wrote in another e-mail dated April 24.
To further confuse matters, Conservative MP Greg Rickford told a parliamentary committee this week that Strahl would miss his Ottawa speaking engagement for “personal, family reasons.”
“I can say that the minister’s schedule has changed for personal, family reasons and Minister Strahl has a strong reputation for working closely with stakeholders like your coalition,” Rickford said on Tuesday in the standing committee on aboriginal affairs and northern development.
But Strahl wasn’t with his family. He was in the Yukon capital to announce $3.5 million in federal money for roadwork over two years.
“Ministers all over the country are making announcements,” he said, his voice shaky, when asked why he wasn’t meeting with Yukon First Nations. “My job is to announce the northern portion.”
The anger and frustration of Yukon’s First Nation chiefs are the result of miscommunication, suggested Strahl.
“I receive hundreds of invitations a year,” he said. “I’m not pointing fingers at anyone.”
Strahl would meet with Grand chief Andy Carvill during his Whitehorse trip, he added.
Ruth Massey, chief of the Ta’an Kwatch’an Council, doesn’t buy it.
“We’re very concerned he’d go to the Yukon when he knew very well we’d be here,” she said.
The conference wasn’t the only meeting with Yukon chiefs Strahl has cancelled, she said. They also expected to meet him in Whitehorse next week. But that meeting has also been scrapped, said Massey.
It’s a touchy time. Negotiations are underway between the chiefs and Ottawa to decide how much money they will receive to implement their land claim deals.
Yukon First Nation chiefs last met with federal ministers in March. Strahl said he hopes to have new agreements in place by the end of year.
First Nations are currently unhappy with how federal money is doled out by the territorial government. They’d prefer to see the Council of Yukon First Nations administer the money.
Strahl, while in the Reform opposition in 1994, voted against Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement.
Today he calls modern land claim agreements “a qualified success,” but said he stands by many of his past reservations.
Uncertainty surrounding how many of these deals should be implemented is case in point, he said.
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