Idle No More: Second Verse, Same As The First

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Thanks to Turtle Island Native Network for reposting this article in their online newspaper.

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It was announced on Friday that Bernard Valcourt is the new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs just days after John Duncan‘s resignation.

John Duncan’s resignation (with controversy attached leading to that resignation) makes him the fifth such member of Harper’s cabinet to resign. The resignation came on the heels of news that ethics commissioner Mary Dawson had admonished Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for writing a similar letter for one of his constituents without approval from her office.

When John Duncan resigned on February 15, he claimed it was because in June 2011, he “wrote a character reference letter to the Tax Court of Canada on behalf of an individual to whom [his] constituency staff was providing casework assistance on a Canada Revenue Agency matter.”  In other words, Duncan resigned for his inappropriate behavior while Jim Flaherty did not resign for his inappropriate behavior.

Of peripheral interest to John Duncan’s resignation is the fact that just days earlier, he was defending the need for the Harper Government’s proposed Bill C-27, treaty issues, land-claim settlements, and other important issues relating to First Nations peoples.

So, who is the new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs?

According to MacLean’s magazine, Bernard Valcourt is the former Associate Minister of Defence. The Government of Canada Parliament Info website lists a number of ministerial roles with the Harper Government and even more from his time when the party was under Brian Mulroney’s leadership, one of which from which he resigned (according to the government’s website, he resigned upon pleading guilty to a drinking and driving offence that included a serious accident that also cost him sight in his right eye). Mr. Valcourt has also been a Committee Member for a number of committees from economic policy to social affairs.

Now, the Harper Government have posted on their website that “[quote] Mr. Valcourt is a barrister and solicitor who practised law in Edmundston, New Brunswick, where he lives today [end quote].”

While it’s true that he “practised law in Edmundston, New Brunswick” the implication is that he obviously cannot practice law while he is a Member of Parliament in Ottawa. That’s not exactly correct. You see, the former Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency Minister was banned from practicing law in 2012. The Harper Government was quick to come to Mr. Valcourt’s defence, stating that Mr. Valcourt was banned when he was sworn into political office in May 2011.

And yet, on Mr. Valcourt’s personal website, as of today’s date, it states that he is currently “[quote] a barrister and solicitor practicing law at the City of Edmundston, New Brunswick. He has served as Member of Parliament for the electoral district of Madawaska-Victoria from 1984 to 1993 [end quote].”

While it makes sense to suspend one’s professional activities in order to accept the role of Member of Parliament, that doesn’t mean that one must resign from professional memberships or that one must not fulfill the requirements of maintaining professional memberships. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to expect that a lawyer will meet specific criteria — even minimum requirements for continuing education and professional development — laid out by their province’s law society in order to safeguard one’s professional standing.

SIDE NOTE: We all know that sometimes webmasters don’t get around to make changes to websites, although nearly two years later, one can reasonably expect a politician’s website to be accurate on such matters. Perhaps the Official Agent for the Bernard Valcourt Campaign has been working hard to have inaccurate information on the website changed, however, if this is the case, nearly two years later, one would reasonably expect that this would result in hiring a new webmaster who would have made such changes in short order.

Mainstream media claims that Bernard Valcourt is a straight talker.

Mi’kmaq lawyer and Ryerson University professor, Pam Palmater, isn’t convinced that Bernard Valcourt’s appointment bodes well for First Nations peoples, especially in light of the comments Mr. Valcourt made in his initial statement as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs where he commented on the “significant progress” made by the Harper Government in “improving outcomes” for First Nations peoples. Her concern is that Mr. Valcourt’s initial statement addressed education and northern economic development without addressing treaties, or the current issues that have to do with treaties.

Pam Palmater's Comments_22 Feb 2013_image

In the end, the concern continues. As Alison Loat pointed out in her essay, “Member of Parliament: A Job With No Job Description” the problem with MPs is that the former MPs with whom she spoke lacked a shared understanding of the key components for the job of Member of Parliament, including the responsibilities and expectations of the job. And despite the fact that 65% of those with whom she spoke had spent time in Ottawa on the opposition benches, there weren’t many who stated that holding a government accountable as part of their job. Additionally, she wrote:

“MPs are confused as to their job description, their ability to do their jobs effectively is diminished. When roles and responsibilities are not clear in any organization, problems ensue. Critical tasks will be overlooked, or efforts will be duplicated. Important work will not be achieved. Without clarity on who is in charge, and who is responsible to whom and for what, inter-personal tension is bound to result. These issues also tend to be amplified during times of war, economic uncertainty or technological or change – times that especially demand a clear-headed, well-reasoned response from our elected leaders, even when the path forward is not immediately apparent.”

Conclusion

We can hope that Bernard Valcourt will do right by First Nations peoples as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, but only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s not focus on how things may play out and focus on making positive change happen. Rather than adopt the wait-and-see approach some would like to see Natives embrace, Indigenous peoples will continue with the Idle No More movement.

Elyse Bruce

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