By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Opposition MPs said Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan seemed “tired” in an appearance before a parliamentary committee Tuesday that left them wondering if he’s still up to the job of leading a sprawling and “complex” department.
During an hour-long appearance before the Aboriginal affairs committee, Duncan offered rambling answers to both opposition and Conservative MPs.
At two points during his appearance, Duncan had his answers cut short by his own parliamentary secretary and by the Conservative chair of the committee.
Duncan, who sat next to his department’s deputy minister Michael Wernick, also failed to answer a question from Conservative Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke who wanted to know what water projects the department had recently completed.
“I kept thinking, ‘wasn’t he given those (Conservative) questions in advance?'” said Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett. “He seems tired. I don’t know how to explain it, there just isn’t a lot of energy there for this file that is hugely important.”
NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan said it was up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to decide whether Duncan was still able to handle his portfolio.
“It seems he gets a lot of assistance from the deputy minister,” said Duncan. “It’s a big, complex portfolio and we need a minister giving it his full attention.”
Minister John Duncan, however, said his health was fine.
“I’m great, yeah,” said Duncan, after he finished his appearance. “I’m fixed. I am all good.”
Duncan was recently hospitalized as a result of complications stemming from his 2010 open-heart, valve replacement surgery.
The news of his hospitalization surfaced in January after Duncan’s competency was openly questioned by the press during the Attawapiskat housing crisis. The crisis seemed to have caught the minister flatfooted. Duncan’s press aide pulled the minister away to safety several times after he was caught facing reporters’ questions he seemed unable to field.
Opposition MPs are again wondering if Duncan is up to the task. His interaction with Conservative MPs Tuesday raised eyebrows among MPs on the committee.
One exchange came when Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal affairs, asked Duncan a question about cooperation between First Nations and Ottawa. Rickford, a Conservative MP from Kenora, cut Duncan off after the minister spent about a minute and a half answering the question.
“I am hearing from First Nations leaders in the great Kenora riding who appreciate the fact that they are getting a real opportunity to make inputs. I am sure you can concur with me that this has been positive and certainly determinate with some of the success you are having,” said Rickford.
Duncan said, “I consider that a compliment. We believe that the best way to make progress is in partnership and with mutual respect so we, um, you know, I always go back to the water legislation, because the water legislation was basically presented with no First Nation support on the first go around now we have very significant First Nation support. We spent a year and a half saying, number one, we want to come to a place where both parties are pretty satisfied with the legislation. We did a lot of negotiations, I had to renew, or not renew, I had to, um, um, put some real political capital into that bill. My staff, departmental staff, there were a lot of officials that worked a lot of hours on that, many days, and I know that, particularly the Alberta and Atlantic Chiefs….”
Rickford then stopped Duncan before he could finish the sentence.
“Minister, sorry to interrupt you, I have a couple more questions on education I want to squeeze in here and my colleagues are going to ask you some tough questions on water,” said Rickford.
“Fair enough,” said Duncan.
Duncan was referring in his answer to a proposed government bill to create regulations for water systems on First Nations reserves that was introduced in the Senate last week. The previous incarnation of the bill died when the election was called last spring.
When the round of questioning came around again to the Conservatives, Clarke lobbed another easy question at Duncan.
“I am just hoping you can add some clarification just in regards to what water systems, on reserve, that the government has actually helped build, most recently,” said Clarke.
“Your question is on bulk water systems?” said Duncan.
“Water and wastewater infrastructure, what new projects have recently taken place, undertaken?” said Clarke.
“Yes thank you for that. One thing I would like to start off by saying, the technology dealing with water and waste water is accelerating at a rate that is very helpful in terms of affordability going forward. The old systems were very expensive and we all know that we are facing a significant challenge even though we’ve invested huge monies since forming govt. The economic action plan, on top of our core funding, provided $187 million over two years to support the construction of 23 water and waste water projects, benefiting 44,000 FNs residents,” said Duncan, before taking an about 20 second pause.
“We um, addressed 15 water treatment systems of both a high design risk and a high overall risk in the national assessment and we have work underway on 47 other such systems so that survey in assessment allowed us to set priorities and I have been to some of those plants and it’s most amazing. The main thing we have to make sure, we invest in the technology, we invest in the system and we have to make sure we have an operator and that the operator has the certification that is required and isn’t stolen by another jurisdiction because these people are very much in demand. So that has become a very big challenge. We have an operator training in place so this whole area is a great focus for us as well,” said Duncan, who referred to a government commissioned assessment of water and waste water systems on reserves across the country.
Clarke then repeated the question.
“What action is being taken to improve water and waste water services on the reserves?” said Clarke.
By this time, Wernick had provided Duncan with a list and the minister rhymed off some of the department’s recent projects in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.