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Penashue's dramatic journey from civil disobedience to political power

Newly appointed Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Peter Penashue is sworn in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on May 18, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Peter Penashue is now at the centre of federal power, the latest step in the Innu leader's dramatic personal journey that runs from abuse to protest and ultimately to business and political success.

The man who once defied government fishing laws in solidarity with the Mohawks of Oka, Que., is now in charge of the department at the very heart of federal power: President of the Queen's Privy Council and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

But over the 21 years since, that young Innu protester dramatically changed his approach to politics. Through major resource deals like Voisey Bay and Churchill Falls, he won big gains for his people through guaranteed jobs and revenue for Innu.

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Now his appointment as the second aboriginal person - along with Leona Aglukkaq - in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet is creating high hopes that he will pave the way for a new era of aboriginal leaders.

"He realized that civil disobedience or protest can certainly bring attention to an issue," said Clint Davis, an Inuk from Labrador who is president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. "But real change comes from business activity and business development in a way that was respectful of their culture and respectful of the environment. So I have high expectations of him."

Mr. Penashue, 47, was the only Conservative elected in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, explaining his quick rise into cabinet.

He first appeared in the media spotlight in the 1980s when he joined his mother, Elizabeth Penashue, in protesting low-level military test flights over Labrador. Later, Mr. Penashue would again garner massive media and government attention for deciding to release the shocking footage of six gas-sniffing Innu kids screaming for death.

"Some said it was exploiting the kids, but we said if we don't do it no one is going to listen to our problems," he told The Globe and Mail in a 1994 interview.

It is this clear understanding of how to use the media, government and ultimately corporate partners to produce something positive that makes Mr. Penashue one to watch. While he jokes that he never wears a tie, he's no stranger to Ottawa and Toronto.

One of his close friends is Seamus O'Regan, co-host of CTV's Canada AM. Mr. O'Regan's father, also named Seamus, moved his family to Goose Bay in the early 1980s when he served as Supreme Court judge for Labrador.

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That meant dealing with Mr. Penashue and the Innu over how to manage the community's high incarceration rates. The younger Seamus worked for then Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin early in his career and, as a result, dealt professionally with Mr. Penashue. Mr. O'Regan said he admired the way Mr. Penashue spoke publicly of the childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest. They remained friends and Mr. O'Regan credits Mr. Penashue for recognizing the opportunities for resource deals early on.

"There is a change that is occurring and one can only think that Peter's profile, Peter's story, and now his ascension into the federal cabinet - I can't believe I get to call him minister next time I see him, it's just amazing - that can't help but move it forward and to embolden more people in first-nation communities," he said.

Mr. Penashue, who was not available for an interview, has said he was only expecting to be an MP, not a minister.

St. John's-based Conservative organizer Leo Power is the man who recruited Mr. Penashue after years of trying. The NDP also made overtures.

The secret of the election win, he said, was Mr. Penashue's push to register his Innu supporters and get them to vote in advance polls. Even then, it was a nail-biter. Local TV stations declared him defeated, but he won by 79 votes.

"Peter has a lot to learn," said Mr. Power. "There's a lot of work to be done, but given the person that he is, I think he will do very well."

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There are already challenges. Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois claims he's in a conflict over the Churchill Falls development, which some in Quebec view as unfair competition to Quebec's hydro system.

His pro-development approach is not even universally accepted among his own community - or family. Her mother has said that while she's very happy for her son's victory, she will continue to oppose the Lower Churchill hydro project due to its impact on area wildlife.

At his swearing in as minister, Mr. Penashue paused for a moment. He later told the CBC his thoughts turned to his grandfatherMatthew.

"I had put him through so much grief in my younger days when I was drinking hard and he was so worried about me and always concerned, and always encouraged me to change," he said. "He would have been so proud."

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