Out with the old minister, in with the new

Andy Mitchell “open and supportive of Nunavut,” premier says


Premier Paul Okalik received an early Christmas present this week, with the appointment of a new minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.

On Friday, Prime Minister Paul Martin named Andy Mitchell, a small-town member of Parliament from central Ontario, to head the prickly federal department.

Mitchell has visited Nunavut three times. Okalik said he met the rural politician last spring, and liked his approach.

“I briefed him on our challenges. He was very open and supportive of Nunavut, so that is very encouraging,” Okalik said.

Support and encouragement is something Nunavut has not previously seen from the department, Okalik said.

Robert Nault, Mitchell’s predecessor, had refused to begin negotiations on devolution, and to answer Nunavut’s call for an economic development agreement and more infrastructure funds. This was a constant frustration for the territory.

“I think that if this current minister does one thing for Nunavut, then that will be more than what the past minister ever did for Nunavut, so that’s why I refer to it as ‘four wasted years,’” Okalik said.

“I’ve never seen a more negative and antagonistic minister [Nault] in my entire life, my own entire lifetime. If they want to look good, they actually have to accomplish something. Thank goodness he was chased out of office.”

Mitchell said he plans to use a grassroots, “bottom-up” approach to foster a close, working relationship with communities.

“One of the things I’m absolutely committed to do is to engage aboriginal communities in a dialogue on the ground level,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview from Ottawa. “I see the role of the federal government as one that provides the tools that will allow communities to achieve the progress that they’re looking for.”

Mitchell has been the chair of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources. He has also served as Secretary of State for Parks and for Rural Development and the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.

He has been a staunch Martin supporter, and strong backer of Liberal Party positions, including same-sex marriage. On his official Web site, Mitchell says he “firmly” believes that there should be equal access to civil marriage, although he says churches should define marriage as they see fit and “according to their moral beliefs.”

Mitchell is the MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, a picturesque riding north of Toronto that’s best known as the summer playground for monied Torontonians. He lives in Gravenhurst, the site of the Fenbrook prison where many Inuit inmates are serving federal time.

Mitchell’s background is in finance and economics. Before he entered politics, he was a banker.

Since his first election to the House in 1993, Mitchell has shown interest in such areas as small business, tourism, access to capital, infrastructure development, the environment and water resources — and he wants to bring this focus to his new department.

On his Web site, Mitchell says he wants to make sure government policies result in jobs.

“I will use existing government programs to assist individuals who are unemployed; work toward the establishment of community — based economic development initiatives; and provide assistance from national programs to local organizations working to maintain a local safety net for individuals in need.”

With files from Jim Bell in Iqaluit.

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