OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tapped an experienced hand to take over the trouble-plagued Aboriginal Affairs ministry following the surprise resignation last week of John Duncan.
Bernard Valcourt, 61, a former cabinet minister in the 1980s Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, assumes the job with the clock ticking on a government promise to address long-standing and intractable treaty and land claim issues.
The New Brunswick MP steps into the void left when Duncan suddenly resigned last week after improperly writing to a tax court on behalf of a constituent.
Valcourt said in a release he accepted the full cabinet post “with humility” and thanked Harper “for placing his confidence in me on this most important file.”
Valcourt will need to get up to speed in a hurry.
More than a year ago, Harper met with aboriginal leaders in a highly symbolic summit that promised to reset the relationship.
Early last month, with national demonstrations by the Idle No More movement leaving the Crown-First Nations relationship in tatters, Harper and Duncan sat down again with national chiefs and committed to a new urgency in revisiting treaties and speeding up land claim negotiations.
There was talk of a second meeting taking place before the end of January.
Duncan emerged to say that Harper and his bureaucratic backstop, the powerful Privy Council Office, would be taking an active role on “those sticky items which are identified which could use some direction from the centre.”
However, internal First Nations political divisions, a health issue with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and Duncan’s unexpected resignation have all conspired to undermine the sense of progress.
“This January, the government committed itself to a high-level dialogue on the treaty relationship and comprehensive claims,” Valcourt said Friday in a release.
“I am firmly of the view that working together is the best way to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient aboriginal communities.”
He said he looked forward to meeting with First Nations leaders “in the weeks and months to come.”
Duncan’s resignation and Valcourt’s promotion prompted a minor cabinet shuffle, with Veterans Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney taking on the Francophonie and Revenue Minister Gail Shea adding responsibility for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Kerry-Lynne Findlay, a B.C. MP, was promoted from the backbench to associate defence minister.
For Valcourt, this marks just the latest resurrection for a politician with a bruising past.
Valcourt lost his job as minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs under Mulroney after he crashed his motorcycle while impaired in 1989. The accident cost him an eye.
He subsequently returned to cabinet — first as fisheries minister and then at employment and immigration — before losing his seat in the devastating Conservative electoral wipeout of 1993.
Valcourt became leader of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives in 1995 but suffered another hard loss — winning just six seats — later that year in the provincial election. In 1997 he was replaced as the provincial party leader.
In 2011 he made a successful return to federal politics, winning the riding of Madawaska-Resigouche. Harper immediately made him a secretary of state — a junior cabinet minister — with the portfolios of ACOA and the Francophonie. Last July, Valcourt was given added duties as the associate minister of defence, a clear signal he was impressing the boss.
Friday’s cabinet moves precede what many anticipate will be a more significant front-bench shake-up later this year as Harper positions his Conservatives — after more than seven years in government — for the 2015 election campaign.