Number 64: Waiting for the next Aboriginal Affairs Minister appointment
Sixty-three times since 1867, a figurehead has been named for the file once known as ‘Indian Affairs,’ now doctored (in name only, not in legal documents because that would require constitutional reform) to Aboriginal Affairs. As of last Friday, John Duncan became ex-Minister number 63.
Duncan was the third such minister under the current Conservative government. There have been 21 others before him since 1966. Prior to that, the file was the responsibility of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (nine were also serving as the stewards of Indian concerns). Prior to that, the Minister of Mines and Resources (four handling the file in this incarnation). And prior to that — before 1936 — the Minister was actually called the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. (There were 28 of them.)
In these various roles, there have been men — and three women. Most, unlike Ellen Fairclough, slipped virtually unnoticed into history within a decade of serving. Those most easily remembered probably stay top of mind because they simultaneously held the job of Prime Minister or, like Jean Chrétien, eventually migrated to that top job.
Maybe it’s the fate of that particular job holder, independent of the individual character holding the spot, to vanish from memory. Maybe because the job has been a rubber stamp position rather than a place to stand out for bold thinking.
You might have thought the role of the person in the job was to act as a “steward” for native people. Acting on behalf of native people, looking out for the people’s best interests, upholding rights, combating efforts to undermine or eliminate those rights.
But if the role has involved any kind of stewardship, it has proven to be as the steward of Ottawa’s position vis-a-vis native people. The Aboriginal Affairs Minister is the government’s representative, not the other way around. And in that, in recent years, the same devolution has occurred in the environment and health portfolios as well.
So who will be the next Aboriginal Affairs Minister? Does it matter?