Stephen Harper's decision to rename Indian Affairs as Aboriginal Affairs, far from diminishing the constitutionally protected rights of first nations, is a long-overdue, truthful expression of the broad scope of the government of Canada's complex relationship with all of the country's aboriginal peoples, including the Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians, as well as first nations.
It is especially fitting that change coincides with the unprecedented appointment of two aboriginals to the federal cabinet, one of them an Inuk and the other a former head of the Innu Nation of Labrador. They have not been assigned merely junior roles, but will head important ministries, Peter Penashue as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, and Leona Aglukkaq returning as Minister of Health, as well as serving as Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.
Mr. Penashue and Ms. Aglukkaq will occupy two of 13 seats on cabinet's powerful operations committee, chaired by Jason Kenney. More significantly, these two aboriginals from northern Canada will be at the centre of critical negotiations over a new health-transfer agreement with the provinces.
Both have been active in the politics of their peoples. Before her election to Parliament, Ms. Aglukkaq was a Nunavut politician who fought for Inuit issues. Mr. Penashue, a Labrador MP, has a long background as a first nations leader. He took on the military in opposition to low-level flight training in Labrador, testifying at the federal panel, and later helped expose the human tragedy facing the community of Davis Inlet.
Mr. Penashue once wrote in Cultural Survival Quarterly, "If we are honest with each other, we will recognize that for most Canadians, aboriginal people are more symbolic than real." But he also said, There there is reason for hope." With his appointment, and the return of Ms. Aglukkaq, it is fair to conclude the country has moved beyond symbolism, and toward fulfilling that hope.