Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s First Nations connections

‘What keeps me grounded is my First Nations friends,’ says senior cabinet minister

For a story in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, I interviewed several key figures about the ongoing controversy sparked by the “Idle No More” aboriginal protests, and the bid by the Assembly of First Nations to reassert its leadership through high-level, high-pressure talks with the federal government.

I focus on tensions over the process for settling comprehensive land claims. It’s not that this issue overshadows, say, improving education on reserves or figuring out how to give First Nations a share of resource revenues. But the claims negotiations do seem a clear point of friction, and thus a highly visible test for both the AFN’s leadership and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

Duncan himself is, it seems to me, an inexplicably low-profile figure in all of this. After all, he’s the senior cabinet minister on the most-watched federal policy file of the past couple of months. Yet you don’t see all that much of him. Although he is far from a dynamic politician, Duncan is interesting if only for his unusually close personal links to First Nations.

He doesn’t make much of it, but Duncan’s son and two daughters are status Indians (in the outdated terminology that still legally applies) since their late mother was a member of Vancouver Island’s Ahousaht First Nation. Yes, you’ve heard of Ahousaht: AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo’s home community.  Mary Duncan died early last year, having separated from John Duncan a few years before.

I asked Duncan about their children in an interview last week. They are all adults living in B.C., he told me rather guardedly—a carpenter, a mechanic and an aesthetician. Asked if they give him much feedback on policy or politics, he laughed and said they are not all that interested. “They see me now and again on television, and that’s about it,” he said.

But Duncan said he has other close friends from B.C.’s diverse aboriginal communities whose perspectives do figure into his political decision-making. “I’ll put it to you very simply. What keeps me grounded is my First Nations friends, who are constant companions,” Duncan said. “If I am off-side, they would be the first ones to tell me.”

His rapport with the AFN’s leadership, though, is another matter. With Atleo on sick leave, the assembly’s B.C. regional chief, Jody Wilson-Raybould, already important, has taken on an even bigger role. And she happens to come from the We Wai Kai First Nation in Duncan’s own riding of Vancouver Island North. I asked her about that connection. “I know him,” she said. “We have relationships with him in terms of him being our member of Parliament.”

Given that familiarity, I asked, does she feel comfortable working with him on tough issues? She answered: “I think that the way things have gone in terms of our issues, in terms of comprehensive claims policy, I think there’s a reason why we asked for that high-level oversight from the Prime Minister.”

I followed up by asking if she could be more specific in assessing Duncan’s performance in his portfolio. “I don’t want to actually speak about individual people,” Wilson-Raybould said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s First Nations connections

  1. Interesting article. We have read so much about friction among native bands. One commenter described feuds and nations warring even before the first settlers arrived. Like in old day europe. Country against country. Each tribe having a distinct tradition or language to set them apart from their neighbour. So each tribe has a different priority of the next step. Very difficult to work with. But so does each ethnic group in this country have a different view of whats important to them. I wish Mr Duncan all the best with this file. But if he doesn’t have a passion for the native peoples, he should ask for a different file. I’m sure there is a minister in the conservative government who is hugely passionate about this file, and wants to roll up the sleeve and help with every resource available to him or her

  2. Duncan has always simply struck me as inept. No more so than when baited by reporters at a truth and reconciliation gathering, instead of deflecting a question about whether residential schools amounted to cultural genocide, incredibly he said he didn’t think so… Mumbling something incoherent about it being a failed education programme instead. Yea gods, the elders were sitting right there in front of him. Insensitive or what! Not to mention dead wrong.
    Interestingly chief Spence described him as one of Harpers little men, a man who didn’t know his own mind; and not worth dealing with directly.

    • Interesting that you would validate your opinion by quoting Spence.

      Can you explain to us how that incompetent fool might be worthy of imparting wisdom ?

      • Er…maybe because she has had unsatisfactory dealings with this guy? Do you ever read anything you don’t like? The article hints pretty clearly that other prominent native leaders have little or no confidence in Duncan.
        And she has the right to her opinion foolish or not; same as you have the right to your unequivocally foolish opinions.

        • I never questioned her right to have an opinion—I simply pointed out your continued stupidity for using her as support for your flimsy ramblings.

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