Irwin will be missed


Nunavut residents and other Canadians are going to miss Ronald A. Irwin, whose career as minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is about to end.

Last week, Irwin told the world that he won’t be a candidate in the next federal election, saying he wants to spend more time with family and friends.

That’s just about the most honorable motive you could possibly find for quitting a tough job. Irwin deserves our respect for listing his priorities in the right order.

Although many aboriginal people may disagree, history will likely show that, until now, Irwin may have been the best Indian Affairs minister ever to serve in a Liberal government.

He wasn’t the kind of guy who was any good at endless perorations on how many inherent rights to self-government can dance on the head of a pin.

But he was the kind of guy who could sit across the table from aboriginal leaders, look them in the eye, and say “Let’s make a deal.”

He was clearly a pragmatist who wanted to produce concrete results, not more manure with which to fertilize the growth of academic treatises on aboriginal rights and the Constitution.

To do that, he mostly ignored Canada’s national aboriginal organizations and the elites who run them, and dealt directly with regional and local leaders.

After the spectacular failure of the Charlottetown Accord and the subsequent demise of the many would-be philosopher kings and queens who helped devise it, that wasn’t a bad approach to take.

But in doing so, he alienated many national aboriginal leaders. Not so long ago, Ovide Mercredi even went so far as to accuse Irwin of being “a white supremacist.”

Irwin, of course, is not a racist. He may even be one of the few Indian Affairs ministers who wasn’t.

But Mercredi’s outburst reveals the rage that Irwin inspired three years ago when he circumvented the Assembly of First Nations to sit face-to-face with the aboriginal people of Manitoba to talk real talk about self-government.

Many Nunavut residents didn’t have much respect for Irwin when he started his job ­ but that has clearly changed.

Perhaps because he was preoccupied with treaty and status Indian issues, or perhaps because he was poorly briefed by his staff, four years ago Irwin didn’t seem to know much about Nunavut.

But eventually, Irwin came to learn much about Nunavut. He showed that in March of last year, when he made his historic announcement outlining the federal Cabinet’s commitment to the creation of Nunavut.

Sadly, there was also a cynical and manipulative side to Irwin’s approach. Shortly after he took at the top job at DIAND, press releases announcing innumerable new spending projects on southern Indian reserves gushed almost daily out of DIAND’s headquarters.

While the budgets of every other federal government department were cut by up to 50 per cent, DIAND’s budget stands alone as the only one that has grown since the Liberals took power in 1993.

But most of that spending has been of no benefit to Inuit. New social housing projects are going up on treaty Indian reserves all across Canada ­ but for Inuit and other off-reserve aboriginal peoples, it has come to a standstill.

Clearly, Irwin and his Liberal government have been directing aboriginal money to where their worst aboriginal political problems are most likely to erupt.

But in doing so they have probably violated their fiduciary obligations to Inuit and other off-reserve aboriginal peoples. If the Liberals end up winning the next election, they must correct that.

Having said that, we must also recognize DIAND’s accomplishments during Irwin’s tenure.

They include the settlement of the 100-year-old Nisga land claim, a commitment to resettle the Innu of Davis Inlet, an agreement to compensate the High Arctic exiles, and the beginning of a massive transfer of DIAND responsibilities to the aboriginal people of Manitoba.

Irwin’s successor will be lucky to produce such an honorable record.

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