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Leona Aglukkaq was born and raised in the remote Inuit community of Gjoa Haven, where Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen spent a winter after becoming trapped in ice during a voyage through the Northwest Passage more than 100 years ago.
As a northerner and chair of the multinational Arctic Council, Ms. Aglukkaq is keenly aware of the impact of climate change on the Far North – Mr. Amundsen's treacherous adventure a century ago would be easier today with the dramatic reduction in sea ice and lengthening of the navigation season.
And so her appointment as Canada's Environment Minister on Monday has raised some hopes that the Harper government may be prepared to show some leadership on climate change, where in the recent past it has moved with grudging reluctance – primarily pulled along in matching U.S. regulatory changes – even as Conservative MPs used the issue to batter political opponents.
Calling himself an inveterate optimist, Pembina Institute executive director Ed Whittingham said the former health minister will bring some clout to the portfolio that was lacking with Peter Kent, who was demoted to the back benches.
"A strong environment minister can push at the cabinet table for environmental priorities and a weak one is dominated by other ministers," Mr. Whittingham said. "Ms. Aglukkaq will bring a bit of heft to the portfolio."
But any change may well be more in the realm of style rather than substance, especially given that on key environmental issues – including long-awaited emissions regulations for the oil industry – it will be the Prime Minister's Office rather than the Environment Minister that will call the shots. In her nearly seven years as a Harper government health minister, Ms. Aglukkaq has shown no penchant for pursuing tough regulatory action or leading a national debate.
From the government's point of view, her appointment as the country's first aboriginal environment minister carries enormous communications upside, as Ottawa battles critics both outside the country and internally over its resource development agenda and specific proposals like the Keystone XL pipeline. It will likely be harder for lefty environmentalists to demonize a 46-year-old Inuit woman than a nearly-70-year-old, former broadcaster from Toronto – Mr. Kent – who has been generally ineffectual in carrying the government's climate message.
In that way, Ms. Aglukkaq complements Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who remains in his job despite – or more likely because of – his aggressive verbal combat with the government's environmentalist critics. She should have more credibility than either Mr. Kent or Mr Oliver when it comes to talking to First Nations leaders about the government's commitment to sustainable resource development.
The new environment minister has provided some indication of her approach as she took the reins of the Arctic Council, an eight-nation group that works to harmonize strategies for northern development.
In speeches, she has emphasized the need for "development for the people of the North" and has criticized anti-development activists who do not live there. She has embraced the Harper government view that climate change is opening the north for development, and the focus should be on managing that process rather than stopping development or seizing on the impacts to trumpet the need for emissions reductions.
Shawn McCarthy covers energy in the Ottawa bureau.