Newly appointed minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Chuck Strahl, voted against the Yukon First Nations land agreement and self-government bills while in opposition.
Voting along party lines, then-Reform Party MP Strahl voted against the Yukon First Nations Self-Government Act, Bill C-34, and the Yukon First Nations Land Claims Settlement Act, Bill C-33, with 34 other MPs in June 1994.
It’s an indicator of how out of touch the Conservative Party is with First Nations issues across the country, said Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.
“There’s never been a government that has taken so much away from First Nations in such little time,” said Bagnell.
In the 18 months since the Conservatives won a minority government, the government has cut funding from an aboriginal non-smoking initiative, aboriginal language education and a court challenge program, said Bagnell.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet Tuesday and Strahl moved from the Agriculture ministry to INAC. Former INAC minister Jim Prentice moved to Industry Canada.
Spokespeople from INAC and Strahl’s Ottawa office said he was unavailable for comment.
While appointing Strahl as the new INAC minister is “at least a second chance to do the right thing,” there shouldn’t have been a change in ministers in the first place, said Bagnell.
“The problem with shuffling the INAC minister is that the department is so large,” he said. “There are 600 First Nations in Canada, and each has its own challenges.”
Only 18 months into its mandate, the minority government won’t last much longer, and after an election, there’ll be a new government or a new INAC minister.
“By the time bureaucrats get Strahl up to speed on the agreements and the technical details, they’ll have to start all over again,” said Bagnell.
But Yukon Conservative candidate Darrel Pasloski said the cabinet shuffle is a way for MPs to gain experience and quickly learn the issues.
“It’s spreading around experience in the young government and that’s good management for the long term,” said Pasloski.
Strahl, a strong MP from BC, is a consensus builder, an important trait when working with First Nations, and the positive reception from aboriginal leaders is a testament to that, he added.
There’s already a commitment from Strahl to increase the Yukon First Nations’ role in building the territory.
During a recent meeting with Council of Yukon First Nations, Strahl, then Agriculture minister, expressed his support for an expanded role for First Nations in Yukon College, said Pasloski.
Prentice earned praise from First Nations leaders across Canada for his work on increasing the independence of the land-claim settlement process and his progress on increasing material property rights of aboriginal women living on reserves.
Strahl will continue to work on the foundations laid by Prentice, but there is plenty of work left to improve the lives of First Nations, said Pasloski.
“Are we there yet? Absolutely not,” he said. “But the work we saw in the first 18 months will continue.”
Bagnell would like to see more money spent on northern research facilities, one way to increase sovereignty claims in Canada’s North, he said.
The Ross River Dena Council should be a priority for the new INAC minister, he added.
The First Nation needs to expand and modernize its administrative facilities, but as one of three First Nations not signed on to a land agreement, locals require skills training and courses in local government to deliver the programs and services an agreement would entail, said Bagnell.
The Umbrella Final Agreement has produced a lot of positive stories, said Pasloski. First Nations are growing economically and headway has been made on social issues.
“We’ve created opportunities for First Nations to become economically sustainable, which also ties into their success on social issues,” he said.
“We have, compared to the other territories, done more work on land agreements and devolution. We’ve been down this path already. The territory is primed to move forward.”