TORONTO - Premier Dalton McGuinty's decision to turn aboriginal issues into a part-time cabinet job is a "step backwards" for his government and its relationship with First Nations, aboriginal leaders said Tuesday.
Attorney General Chris Bentley took over the post Monday during a cabinet shuffle that saw Brad Duguid elevated to energy and infrastructure after a year and a half as aboriginal affairs minister.
It sends the wrong message to First Nations that are grappling with high suicide rates, economic hardship and long-standing treaty disputes, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy, who represents 49 communities in Ontario.
"We are disappointed that the premier doesn't see aboriginal issues worthy of having a stand-alone minister," he said Tuesday.
Ontario's aboriginal minister shouldn't go back to being a "part-timer," said Grand Chief Randall Phillips of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians.
Creating a stand-alone ministry has helped both sides to "manoeuvre through some old hard lines" and find new ways of doing business, he added.
"Time will tell whether or not our fears are justified, it just depends on how much time and effort Minister Bentley is prepared to put forward on this," Phillips said.
"But like I said, I can still see the challenge right now, because you can't have two high-profile topics and then give them the time that they both need."
Having a minister dedicated to aboriginal issues was as key recommendation of the inquiry into the death of native protester Dudley George, who was shot in 1995 by police in Ipperwash Provincial Park.
Murray Klippenstein, the lawyer for the late Sam George - Dudley's brother - has also panned McGuinty's move, saying it would have upset and "saddened" his former client, who was instrumental in pushing for a public inquiry.
Provincial relations with First Nations have been moving in the right direction and pulling back from the inquiry's advice now could derail those efforts, said Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse.
"It's unfortunate that we're having to have the kind of discussion of, 'Is government still wanting to resolve many of the outstanding issues?"' he added.
"It's a question that comes out only because the feeling that the priority that we thought we had in dealing with the many issues may be perceived as not being there anymore, because we have a minister that has two sets of different priorities."
The dual role could also put Bentley in a "difficult" position with First Nations, particularly if he's overseeing Crown lawyers responsible for prosecuting aboriginal protesters in court.
"The question and the concern that First Nation leadership has is, how is he going to manage these situation where he is in this dual role where we're adversaries, so to speak?" he said.
There will be no conflict in juggling both portfolios, Bentley vowed.
"We won't let it," he said in an interview. "They are separate ministries. I have separate responsibilities and they will be treated very much as that."
Bentley said he's already "hit the ground running" with his new job and has scheduled meetings this week with aboriginal leaders.
"I've thrown myself into this with all the energy I can muster," he said. "I'm going to pick up where Brad has passed the torch on, and we're going to continue the momentum."
The premier, who created a separate Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs after the 2007 election, has defended the move, saying the two ministries wouldn't be merged.
"There is one minister who is taking responsibility for both separate ministries and I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Chris Bentley," McGuinty said Monday.
By dividing the minister's attention, McGuinty is putting pressing issues such as aboriginal health care, infrastructure and revenue-sharing on the backburner, said NDP critic Gilles Bisson.
"I think it sends a message to First Nations that the government is not going to be taking these issues as seriously as they should, and at a time when these communities are very impoverished and they're trying to get themselves a little bit ahead of the curve," he said.