The chief of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation is calling on New Brunswick’s premier to reconsider a decision to have the new minister of Aboriginal affairs oversee three other portfolios at the same time.
Arlene Dunn, a first-time MLA elected in Saint John-Harbour earlier this month, was unveiled as Aboriginal affairs minister in Premier Blaine Higgs’ new cabinet.
She’s also the minister for economic development and small business, Opportunities NB and immigration.
Chief Bill Ward said the move is a setback in relations between the province and First Nations communities.
He said First Nations were developing a rapport with the previous minister, Jake Stewart. Many had requested he remain in the portfolio, but he was dropped from cabinet completely.
“He really started getting a good handle on all of the challenges that we face, the issues, the concerns,” Ward said of Stewart. “And he was becoming our voice to bring that to government to try to address these.”
Ward said he became chief in 2015, adding that Dunn is the fourth minister of Aboriginal affairs since then.
Ward also said Stewart was a full-time minister with no other responsibilities, something Higgs promised in his throne speech following his election win in 2018.
“To me, that says one of two things,” Ward said. “It’s either the premier and the government feel they’ve built that relationship already over the past few years. Or it’s not really something that’s high on their priority list now, two years later.”
Ward is calling for the premier to reconsider. He wants the government to make Aboriginal affairs a full-time portfolio again and give it to someone with experience so dialogue can continue with progress rather than name introductions.
Following the swearing-in ceremony, Dunn told reporters she’s uniquely qualified for the file because of three decades of experience with First Nations in building trades.
“I think that that’s something I can build on,” Dunn said Tuesday. “And I want them to know that that’s going to be a major priority for me. I’ll be out there speaking with people, engaging with them, collaborating with them. I want them at the table. I want a bigger table and I want them at that table.”
Higgs said he was “excited” about Dunn’s “ability to work with First Nations to determine their priorities and how we can move the bar for helping the communities utilizing what they believe they need so they can guide us.”
Stewart joined First Nations leaders in calling for an inquiry after two Indigenous people were shot and killed by police earlier this year, but the premier resisted those calls.