Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan: Menacing or Muzzled?

A well-researched missive this week over at The Dominion (“New Minister a ‘Declared Enemy’ of First Nations”) examines whether the August 2010 appointment of combative MP John Duncan as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada minister was the harbinger of a new, nastier tone to come in federal Aboriginal policy.

I have to admit, reviewing some of the things the man has said about such policy while in Opposition, I too expected that some degree of his trademark heatedness would follow him into power as a member of government. Take for example, these Parliamentary bits of bluster:

Feb. 6, 1998: Mr. Speaker, the fisheries minister keeps insisting that a race based commercial fishery is legal. He has ignored advice from native and non-native commercial fishermen that racial tinkering leads to racial tension.

Mar. 18, 1996: Allow me to focus my comments for a moment on [INAC], otherwise known as the money vacuum. … It is a history of misguided priorities where the current minister feels that maintaining this native dependency on the federal treasury will deliver these people to self-sufficiency, dignity and a stable future. It is a denial and a cruel manipulation of these people that is demeaning and paternalistic; keeping his charge in poverty paralysis, fed and warm but never to let them break the surly bonds of welfare and dependency unless they are the elites at the minister’s trough. Furthermore, it is a cruel, unfair hoax on the Canadian taxpayer because despite all the federal largesse and misguided paternalism, those status Indians who live on reserves do not pay income, property or sales taxes on purchases delivered to the reserves.

Now, to be fair, Duncan uttered these comments while representing what were technically different political parties (Reform and Alliance). Nowadays, he speaks on behalf of a new team, the Conservative Party of Canada. And maybe that’s the real point to focus on here.

When Duncan was freshly appointed as Indian Affairs minister, our poll on the matter revealed that just under 61% of voters felt INAC policy would be the same no matter who is Minister (although 25% did think Duncan’s appointment signaled a change for the worst). But what if that dismissive view of Duncan’s impact is closer to the truth? What if, far from displaying his more menacing persona (a shtick more easily cultivated in the much-less-consequential realm of Opposition), Duncan is now effectively muzzled into taking whatever orders come from his boss Prime Minister Stephen Harper?

As evidence for this possibility, I firstly submit these March 12, 1996 criticisms by then-Reform MP John Duncan concerning proposed federal compensation to a group of Inuit for a decades-old transgression:

Mr. Speaker, newspaper reports indicate that the minister is to enter into an agreement for $10 million in compensation for 17 [sic] Inuit families that were voluntarily [sic] relocated to the high Arctic in the 1950s. Although the move was not without its hardships, the new community is reported to be among the most successful in the high Arctic. Contrary to documentary evidence and the good reputation of government officials at the time, the politically predictable Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples condemned the move and recommended compensation. The Globe and Mail suggested that this would apply a retroactive morality, satisfying a need to assert the contemporary cant of political correctness. Rather than engaging in historical revisionism and settling old grievances, imagined or real, the government would be better advised to focus on contemporary needs.

Some 14 years later, guess what Duncan’s very first words in his very first public act as the new Indian and Northern Affairs minister were? Yep, you guessed it:

“The Government of Canada apologizes for having relocated Inuit families and recognizes that the High Arctic Relocation resulted in extreme hardship and suffering for Inuit who were relocated. We deeply regret the mistakes and broken promises of this dark chapter of our history.”

Part of that apology included a series of commemoration projects and a $10-million trust. (Duncan will attend said commemorations, but there’s no word yet on whether crow is the main course on any of the dinner menus.)

And as for Duncan’s utter, unwavering opposition to “race based” Aboriginal fisheries? His growl has seemingly become a grin:

I’m happy to announce an investment of $7.7 million in federal support for Atlantic First Nations fisheries enterprises. … We will continue to make such investments because we know that increasing Aboriginal participation in the economy is the most effective way to improve the quality of life and secure a prosperous future for Aboriginal communities. That’s good news for all Canadians.

Now, these absolute about-faces by Duncan may, by themselves, prove nothing in the long run. Maybe the leopard will eventually show his old spots, as one critic put it in The Dominion.

Or maybe Harper — whose agenda, tactics and judgment seem shrewder and subtler compared to Duncan’s historic bull-in-a-china-shop approach — has simply schooled the rookie Cabinet minister well in the ways of politics.

In any case, Duncan’s not lived up to his rock-em-sock’em reputation, and, so far, that’s better than the alternative.

[ Images of contrite, happy Duncan via INAC website ]

4 thoughts on “Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan: Menacing or Muzzled?

  1. There’s an axiom in basic journalism that goes something like this: Watch what they do, not what they say. Leopards and spots, says I.

  2. Minister Duncan may very well be saying what the overwhelming silent majority are thinking …
    ….i.e. that patience for FN obstructionism is waning , even in this most generous and tolerant of nations …..The excessive privileges of the FN may not prevail forever , as population expands …
    Just as ” constitutional provisions ” can be amended …..treaties can also be scrapped …It is the will of the majority that will prevail …Hopefully the FN will never become victims of public wrath , but rather be part of the mainstream of the citizens ….equal – yes- but not “more equal”..

  3. I think Minister Duncan should read human rights legislation and perhaps you should too,. Begin with Canada’s, then the provincial HR legislation of whatever province you live in, then go on to International HR Covenants, then take a good look at the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That last one fills a huge gap in global human rights initiatives. What you’re talking about is whim not law or respect for human rights.

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