Following last week’s resignation of Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Duncan, my immediate reaction was suspicion. Perhaps he did the honourable thing by owning up to his mistake, writing a character reference for a constituent to a tax court judge in June of 2011, but to me, his resignation seemed a little convenient.
Just to clarify though, I’m not suspicious of Minister Duncan personally, but what his resignation represents in the grand scheme of things for Aboriginal people.
Duncan’s resignation came not long after all ministers were required to review their correspondence when it was revealed that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was guilty of a similar incident, using his influence as minister by writing a letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) supporting the license application of a company in his riding.
Duncan’s reference letter was definitely something to be frowned upon, but probably didn’t warrant a resignation. After all, Flaherty hasn’t resigned and doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Some have suggested that because Harper accepted Duncan’s resignation, there appears to be a double standard at play. How can you keep one minister in cabinet, while allowing another to resign over virtually the same matter?
However, of all times to be Aboriginal Affairs minister, this would be one of the trickiest. There are several key things that make this portfolio one of the more challenging and stressful to head.
The government was recently forced to turn over its archived residential school files by an Ontario Supreme Court judge to honour a commitment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) who are trying to compile all historical records relevant to the Indian Residential School experience. Many of the active files have been turned over by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs -- approximately one million documents, but those files that were sent to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) have not been as easy to access. There are reportedly millions more documents which might take up 6.5 kilometres of shelf space and would take approximately $100 million to find in the LAC.
With 23 different departments refusing to hand over files, TRC had little choice but to file a lawsuit demanding access to the files.
Documenting these files falls under the “Truth” objective in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is part of their mandate to locate and record these files, in order to leave a legacy of truth, however harrowing that might be.
Duncan’s response to the judge’s ruling saying it was not “clear cut” and “left open” suggested that the government might be considering an appeal. Perhaps Duncan didn’t want to be party to such a challenge, especially following a report citing that at least 3,000 First Nations children died at residential schools, mostly of diseases, with many also suffering from physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also repeatedly brushed off calls for a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada, even though Human Rights Watch released a report stating that RCMP have raped and subjected Aboriginal women to other violent acts in British Columbia. Not to mention there have been conflicting reports between the RCMP and the Native Women’s Association of Canada about how many women went missing and/or died. Having a public inquiry would be beneficial not only in finding accurate numbers, but in uniting the RCMP and NWAC, who clearly are at odds with each other, because they cannot even agree on their numbers, evidence they are not working together as well as they could be.
Duncan would be the government’s face for these issues.
He is also in the position to address Idle No More protests and rallies. He was in office during Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. He requested a meeting with her but she refused.
When Duncan was appointed, he was appointed as minister of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC). Later Harper changed his title to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and that move alone elicited suspicion from many First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups, who were annoyed that Harper seemed to be lumping distinct groups together and taking a pan-Indian approach to them via the new titles for Minister and subsequently his department. Ironically, now those very distinct groups have begun to band together in the form of Idle No More, something that Harper probably didn’t anticipate, and Duncan couldn’t have foreseen.
Also, considering that Duncan has had health problems and his First Nations wife passed away last year, I’m not sure he was capable of continuing with such an incredibly demanding job. But timing is everything, and like I mentioned, I was suspicious of his sudden resignation. It seemed as though he were searching for a way out, and took the first one he could find. It really is a strategic move. He has taken an honourable exit, but will still be able to continue as an MP without earning a tarnished reputation.
I really do wish Duncan well, but I wonder if he was aware of some of Harper’s plans and with a heavy conscience decided he no longer wanted a part in it all? Was it simply ill health and mounting job pressures? Or will Harper’s Aboriginal Policy reveal a frustrating new turn of events? I guess only time will tell.