Changes to the Indian Act and border security were the main concerns for Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister Robert Nault this past year.
But looking back, the Kenora-Rainy River MP said last week he’s pleased with the way the federal government dealt with numerous obstacles faced this year.
“I think we’ve made some very good progress,” he said just before leaving Ottawa for the Christmas break.
For Nault, the main focus this year was to reform the 125-year-old Indian Act.
His ministry has consulted 9,000 members of the native community across Canada and now a joint ministerial advisory committee—comprised of a group of aboriginals—is meeting with him to help draft the legislation.
“I’m pretty comfortable that we will have a good piece of legislation that we will be able to present to the House of Commons in February or March,” he noted.
Nault said he expects three pieces of legislation to appear before the House of Commons, covering everything from First Nations governance and accountability of elected officials to allowing First Nations to generate their own revenue to build infrastructure for their communities.
“This series of legislative initiatives will improve the lives of aboriginal people, we hope,” he remarked. “It’s gonna be one of the most extensive legislative changes or potential legislative changes we will make in one year.”
But these changes have sparked hostility between Nault and Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, who has denounced the process.
Back in July, the AFN threatened roadblocks and an “aggressive” action plan if Nault wouldn’t agree to prolonged and broader talks on updating the Indian Act. Then earlier this month, chiefs voted 55-46 to ask Nault to resign.
Despite the opposition, Nault said he feels confident about the process.
“Are we gonna have opposition from some corners? Sure, I think that’s pretty natural,” he reasoned. “This is a significant change in our relationship going from an Indian Act . . . and, of course, everyone always has concerns about what that would mean.
“I think once they see the legislation, they’ll be very supportive.”
“I’m still working with all the First Nations organizations in the country, those who want to participate,” he added. “And I am prepared to work with the Assembly of First Nations, as well.”
Nault also spent much of the past year dealing with border concerns.
Back in January, he voiced objection to recent toll hikes on the bridge linking Fort Frances to International Falls, Mn. Tolls went up five percent in October, 2000—and they are expected to rise again to help pay for the new Canada Customs and Immigration facility being built here.
“We are reviewing now with Transport Canada the whole issue of the responsibility of tolls and that work is not completed,” Nault said.
“I want to make sure the tolls and the setting of the tolls are done fairly and . . . make sure, on the one hand, there’s a return on investment for the cost of operating the bridge but, at the same time, it doesn’t affect our abilities of the Town of Fort Frances and the northwest of doing business and having people come back and forth through that point of entry.”
Of course, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Ottawa announced $1.2 billion for increased security at the border.
The ongoing trade dispute with the U.S. over softwood lumber is another issue Nault has focused on this year.
“I think any issue will always be minuscule compared to horrendous events of Sept. 11,” he said. “I think we have to be pleased with the overall direction of the government and I think we have made some inroads in a number areas.
“I’ve always been very supportive of investing heavily in infrastructure in the borders; heavily investing in infrastructure in the roadways,” he added.
Nault said he’s also been watching the activities of the local “Re-Inventing Fort Frances” committee. “I have a very large interest in ‘Re-Inventing Fort Frances,’” he remarked.
“Two years ago, I started talking with interested citizens in Fort Frances [that] if we’re going to have a new point of entry, we also should look at the benefits to the community and making sure when people come across the border that they’re looked at as potential clients and customers.”
Nault said he’s pleased with the progress of the committee, and that they have his support.
He also said he agreed with the town’s decision to get the committee to reach out to the private sector, and not rely exclusively on the town, for the $50,000 needed locally for a feasibility study.
“If you don’t have support of the municipal government, if you don’t have support of the public sector and the community at large, it’s very difficult for us to argue that other levels of government should participate financially in initiatives and projects,” he explained.
“The comments made by the mayor and council are very much on the right track.”
As for the future, Nault said he will be meeting in January to discuss the direction of federal funding and how best to spur the local economy. He also will be pushing for movement on providing high-speed Internet access across the country.
“Industry [minister Brian Tobin] and the Government of Canada and myself are involved in making sure that that happens so that Fort Frances and the Rainy River District, and all of the northwest, doesn’t get behind in the race to be competitive,” he stressed.
Above all, Nault said he sees a bright future for Fort Frances in 2002.
“I see for the Town of Fort Frances a new vision. I think there’s great opportunity for export markets in the Rainy River District,” he noted. “I see that as issues we have to continue to work on.”