A prime minister’s dilemma

A recent CBC post mused about the likelihood of one or more of the new Aboriginal MPs in Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal caucus being elevated to federal cabinet and the post of Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (this is still the Department’s legal name, even though the Harper Government renamed it Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) scheduled to be appointed November 4, 2015.

Four names figure prominently in the piece, namely Jody Wilson-Raybould, Robert Falcon-Ouellette, Dan Vandal, and Nunavut’s own Hunter Tootoo.

Originally, I wrote a small piece advocating the appointment of one of these fine individuals as Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). I suggested this come with some heavy support and commitment from the Prime Minister in cabinet, where the “cut and thrust” of what gets supported and what does not takes place. Without this support, I suggested that the Minister would be doomed to failure given that he is a middle-power Minister in a cabinet that could be potentially 30 plus strong (though media speculation has it at around 26; we will see).

I also expressed concern that putting an individual of Aboriginal ancestry in this position, which would place that person in the untenable position of facing daily the conflict between her/his desire to serve, as first priority, the Aboriginal people and governments in Canada, and the requirement of the Minister to be the representative of the Crown.

Then I shared my draft with a few of the finest public policy and political science minds in this country, thinking that they would be supportive of my arguments. Silly me… What a fascinating journey, to wend my way through a range of highly compelling perspectives on what seemed to be at first blush a bit of a “slam dunk” argument.

What I’ll do here is give you all of their perspectives and pass it to you to decide what arguments ring true with you.

Expert One

Sage reviewer number one said it would be a serious mistake to give an Aboriginal MP the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. The federal minister represents the Crown and should not be seen as a representative of Aboriginal peoples. The 10 Aboriginal MPs – and especially the eight Liberals – can play a useful role advising the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and educating the Liberal caucus on Aboriginal issues.

Expert Two

Sage reviewer number two expressed that it is a definite risk for an Aboriginal MP to become the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, but it should one day happen. He argues that the conflict is not unique to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio, but inherent in many cabinet positions. He provides an example from 2012 that saw Leona Aglukkaq leading attacks on the UN special rapporteur for food, Olivier De Schutter, when she was Minister of Health.

Much further in the past, the Assembly of First Nations was shocked when Liberal minister Len Marchand voted against a resolution on Aboriginal rights moved in the House by Joe Clark. Marchand decided to remain as a government minister, rather than vote against his government. Sage reviewer two adds that, surely, some day, there will be an Aboriginal minister for Aboriginal Affairs. After all, would we have a male Minister for the Status of Women? Very interesting question worth a pause for thought.

Expert Three

We come to our third expert on Northern political affairs. He notes that while it used to be the case that health ministers (federal and provincial) were almost always medical doctors – and even though most governments have some medical doctors in their caucuses – it is rare today that a doctor gets to be the minister. Eric Hoskins in Ontario is a current, but rare, exception. It is not often explicitly addressed, but there is the perception that a doctor would be biased in this ministerial role. The lawyers of course are a different story; precious few justice ministers or Attorneys General are not lawyers.

And there’s more. This expert expresses his view that the strongest argument against appointing an Aboriginal person to head the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is the expectations from Aboriginal people, their governments, and organization, that would be unrealistically and unmanageably high, effectively setting up the minister to fail in Aboriginal eyes.

As for the impossible burden that would be placed on an Aboriginal minister to reconcile personal passion for action with the inevitable constraints of office, our third responder is less convinced. He argues that yes indeed, it would be difficult but not fundamentally different from, say, a passionate environmentalist being the environment minister. For example, the pressure is now on for Mr. Trudeau to appoint MP Elizabeth May of the Green Party to this post, so we may just have a test here. His view is that all ministers have to play the compromise game, often with weak hands – Aboriginal Affairs is, at best, middle-power status – and this just comes with the territory.

Expert Four

On to our fourth expert. He is worried that if an Aboriginal person assumes this portfolio, it could have the potential of being a career killer. How do you function under an Act (the Indian Act) that everyone agrees should be repealed? As minister, how do you support the integrity of a piece of legislation that you fundamentally do not believe in? If you are an Aboriginal person who assumes the portfolio, are you de-facto endorsing it, and what would be the response from the Aboriginal community? This respondent sees this as very dangerous.

As a hopeful voice, he suggests that, although Aboriginal Affairs is not a senior portfolio, Prime Minister Designate Trudeau will not be as cruel as his predecessor in creating a tiered internal structure of elites that pits the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs against the others in cabinet. Optimistically he opines “we can only hope.”

There you go. I wish you well in taking this august advice and forming your own thinking on this matter. My view two days ago was pretty clear. Not so much now.

But that is the value of our system of governance in this country. It is rarely straight forward with clear rules of process and engagement.

I wish Prime Minister Designate Trudeau well in his deliberations on this matter. It occurs to me that this is but one seat among many upon which he must dwell. ◉

Photo credit: Liberal Party of Canada.

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