OTTAWA – When Stephen Harper needed someone to prepare the groundwork for a successful meeting Friday with First Nations chiefs, he turned to Mr. Wright.
Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s chief of staff for the past two years, had a long history of brokering complex deals as managing director of mammoth Onex Corp. before arriving in Ottawa as Harper’s right-hand man.
Wright, a trim fitness buff who looks far younger than someone in their 49th year, has been talking chief-to-chiefs with the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations, handling one of the most sensitive, complex files the government has faced in the days leading up to Friday’s gathering.
Aboriginal affairs wasn’t his area of expertise — and no one has been given that specific responsibility since Bruce Carson left in 2009 and headed into a cloud of controversy — but Wright had been advising Harper on policy for years before he came to work for him. There is almost certainly no one the prime minister trusts more on thorny issues.
Derek Burney, chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, calls Wright “the consummate negotiator” — high praise from the man who helped negotiate the Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
Burney had a similar — if smaller scale — experience dealing with the troubled Lubicon nation in northern Alberta in 1988. Mulroney tasked Burney with brokering a deal with the Lubicon, a nation without a treaty or designated reserve land. Like Wright, Burney didn’t have a specific background in aboriginal affairs and was thrown into several days of negotiation.
“The chief of staff’s job is that he’s a fireman in the prime minister’s office,” said Burney. “The job is to put fires out.”
The talks with the Lubicon were ultimately unsuccessful, but Burney said he believes they could very well have prevailed because they were based on a concrete proposal and process — something he views as essential in this case too.
“If you can deal with these things on a practical basis, which is what we tried to do, you have some chance of getting progress. But it takes two to negotiate a practical agreement,” said Burney, who was also part of Harper’s transition-to-power team in 2006.
“If one side is approaching it from a practical standpoint, and the other comes at it form a constitutional or what I would call an almost theological standpoint, it’s very difficult to come to an agreement.”
Like every Harper move, the aim to is to come out of the meeting with concrete, practical deliverables. Harper’s team is focused on pushing ahead an agenda on education, skills training and linking more First Nations with Canada’s natural resource wealth.
There’s nothing necessarily new about that — the government has taken a very incremental, practical approach to aboriginal affairs and related legislation since it came to power, and to pretty much every other policy file.
“Conservatives tend to not think in terms of big societal change overnight, that’s why they’re Conservatives — that’s emblematic,” said Jean-Sebastien Rioux, chief of staff to former aboriginal affairs minister Jim Prentice.
“What’s a problem that we can fix that can improve the life of individuals?”
But Rioux acknowledges that Wright and others within the department of current Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan face the challenge of dealing with a group of chiefs that don’t always agree on a path forward, not to mention the amorphous Idle No More movement.
Rioux said it’s critical that Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo be kept at the forefront of the talks with Wright and others.
“You need a legitimate interlocutor and a legitimate partner at the negotiating table,” said Rioux.
“It’s exasperating from the point of view of government when there’s so many voices — who do you negotiate with when you say you want to sit down with Idle no More?”