Bernard Valcourt's local First Nations connection belies his national image
Federal aboriginal affairs minister is vying for re-election in the northwestern Madawaska-Restigouche riding
For many First Nations activists and organizations, Bernard Valcourt has become the bête noire of Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
As minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, the veteran Conservative politician has been the face of Ottawa's approach to aboriginal issues.
He took over the department in the midst of the wave of Idle No More protests. He was on the job when a sweeping education plan negotiated with First Nations fell apart.
There is politics at all levels: community, provincial, federal and it's no different within the First Nations.- Bernard Valcourt , Conservative candidate
And in June, he was the focus of an indelible image: while others around him leapt to their feet to applaud a call for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, Valcourt stayed in his seat.
But in Valcourt's own backyard, where he is running again as the Conservative candidate in Madawaska-Restigouche in the Oct. 19 election, a different picture emerges — one that highlights the minister's own philosophy.
"I hear, of course, what the advocacy groups, the representative organizations, are saying and doing, but when you go meet the chiefs and councils on the ground, you hear a completely different story," Valcourt told CBC News.
"Some play political games, but most, the vast, vast majority, of the chiefs and councils that I've met with, we've made progress."
As minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency until early 2013, and then as minister of aboriginal affairs, Valcourt has gone to bat for the Grey Rock Power Centre, a major retail and service development perched on a hill overlooking Edmundston.
The site, on the Trans-Canada Highway, includes a gas station, convenience store, Tim Horton's, and casino. A local car dealership is moving there and a new strip mall has just signed its first tenant.
In 2012, Valcourt secured $3.5 million from ACOA for road and sewer work, and more recently got another $1 million from his current department to help build the strip mall.
"He was quite helpful in pushing for the community to receive this economic development fund," says Chief Patricia Bernard.
"It's put us in a position where we can do quite a bit of other things and subsidize other programs that are underfunded through the federal government," she says.
Joanna Bernard says the leases at the site now provide the band more revenue that what it gets from Ottawa.
That's just one example of Valcourt helping the band.
He also supported it becoming the first in Canada to opt into new legislation governing First Nations elections, helping it meet a tight deadline. The band held its election Aug. 27.
The biggest change under the new rules is that the chief and council will now serve four-year terms, instead of a two-year mandate, under the Indian Act.
Chief Bernard says that's vital to the band government's goal to attract investment.
"What businesspeople tend to look for is the stability of the government. We can also do long-term planning and that's something that's important for any economic development," she says.
A reputation for delivering
Valcourt first started working with the band when he was a federal Progressive Conservative MP from 1984 to 1993. He was defeated that year and made a comeback in 2011.
He has a reputation as a politician who delivers for his riding, and that extends to the First Nation.
"It means that when they have specific challenges that confront them, they have a member of Parliament who can work with them to address those," he says.
He also points out that the chief and council have met the deadlines of the Harper government's First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which requires them to disclose their salaries and other spending information.
While some chiefs have criticized the law, Valcourt says it gives band members "the same degree of transparency and openness that all other governments [provide] in the country" and warns them that a Liberal or NDP government would undo that.
Even so, Patricia Bernard says she was sympathetic when Valcourt was criticized for remaining in his seat when everyone around him applauded the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
"It would have been nice if he could have, but I understand that he couldn't. If his boss says, 'Don't.' You don't, you know?"
Valcourt himself is unapologetic.
"I say what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I do what I say I'm going to do," he says, pointing out the government had already rejected calls for an inquiry before that moment in June.
There have been plenty of studies, so a new inquiry would cost tens of millions of dollars "to tell us what we already know," he says.
"So when Justice [Murray] Sinclair recommended — because the crowd, you know, wants this — a national inquiry, I was not going to stand up and applaud a recommendation for something we had already said we will not do.
"And I just stood my ground, as a responsible, honest politician should do, and as a responsible minister of cabinet."
'A friend, but …'
Valcourt's NDP opponent in Madawaska-Restigouche acknowledges the minister himself is well-regarded in the constituency, including with members of the Madawaska First Nation.
"A lot of them say Bernard is a friend, but a lot of them don't agree with the politics of his government, the Harper government," he says.
Valcourt also makes a distinction between national and local — but from a different perspective.
"There is politics at all levels: community, provincial, federal and it's no different within the First Nations," he says.
"But what I have learned and experienced [as minister] is you can work well and accomplish a lot with these individual First Nations."
The philosophy is typical of the Harper government: bypass official gatekeepers — so-called "special interest" groups such as national native groups — to deal more directly with Canadians.
Harper himself sounded a similar note in an interview with CBC's The House last week.
The Conservative leader said he wasn't sure if the Assembly of First Nations wanted to work with him to revive his aboriginal education plan, but "there are many communities and groups of communities in this country who want to move forward with that reform."
It's not unlike how the Conservatives sometimes use social media to bypass traditional news organizations, or have opted against funding daycare programs in favour of sending money directly to parents.
While national aborigional organizations and activists may protest loudly, Valcourt says, "at the local level [chiefs and councils] are really preoccupied with the challenges their members are facing, and we have good working relationships. … Progress is being made."