Robert Nault (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 1, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 1, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

Nault, Robert (Profile)

Watch the ministers exiting one of Jean CHRÉTIEN's cabinet meetings, and try picking out those cut from the same cloth as the Prime Minister. There aren't many. Big city guys such as Allan Rock and Herb Dhaliwal obviously don't qualify. Neither do the professorial figures, the Stéphane Dions and Anne McLellans. John Manley? Too smooth. Denis Coderre? Closer. But consider Robert Nault. His northern Ontario riding is a lot like Chrétien's own in Quebec's hinterland. Like the boss, he's a scrapper who revels in his image as a no-nonsense pragmatist. And like Chrétien in an earlier era, he's making a bid to solidify his big-league political credentials in one of Ottawa's toughest jobs, minister of Indian affairs.

Nault likes the comparison. "We have a lot in common," he says. "Jean Chrétien didn't come to Ottawa as a star. He worked his way up the hard way. He's very family-oriented, and I'd like to think that I'm that way. I don't have a complicated life. Work, home, work, home - that's about it." That, and doing battle with some of the country's most powerful Aboriginal politicians, especially Assembly of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon Come. They've sparred often, but the real slugging started on June 14, when Nault tabled his First Nations Governance Act, a landmark piece of legislation designed to clean up reserve finances, and force chiefs and band councils to become more accountable to band members.

Coon Come didn't waste any time coming out of his corner. Before Nault could finish his news conference announcing the legislation, the national chief was on TV denouncing the proposed law as an extension of the "racist" Indian Act. What's more, he said, Nault was foisting the unwanted reforms on native leaders without proper consultation. In an interview that day, Nault adopted a tone of formal respect for Coon Come, but described his adversary in terms that would hardly be welcomed by the proud leader of an organization that represents 633 reserves, and regards itself as the national voice of status Indians. "He's a lobbyist," Nault told Maclean's. "His role is to lobby on behalf of the chiefs, and there are a number of chiefs who prefer the status quo."

For the Prime Minister, seeing Nault wade into this fight must bring back memories - and not happy ones. As Indian affairs minister in Pierre Trudeau's first cabinet in 1969, Chrétien attempted an even bolder reform, and encountered even angrier opposition. Pressed to think big by Trudeau, he drafted a White Paper (never has the term for a federal policy document been more unfortunate) that proposed abolishing the Indian Act and the reserve system along with it. The plan was inspired by Trudeau's philosophy that all minorities, Aboriginals included, should be equal under the law.

In that case, though, trying to put the principle into practice turned out to be a political disaster. Indian leaders saw the attempt to abolish their special status not as an invitation to take their place in the Canadian mainstream, but as a blueprint for assimilation. Chrétien was eventually forced to withdraw the scheme, and Trudeau admitted the attempt to legislate away inequality was "a bit too abstract."

Nault has never been accused of indulging in abstract thinking. If the scheme Trudeau goaded Chrétien into hatching 33 years ago was rooted in theory, the plan Nault is promoting today is grounded in his practical experience as a constituency politician. As MP for the sprawling Kenora-Rainy River riding in northwestern Ontario, he represents 51 Aboriginal communities. Among them are some of the country's most dismal, such as Pikangikum, the Ojibway reserve that briefly burst into the national news in late 1999 after a tragic spate of adolescent suicides. "For years, I've been asking myself, why it is that Canada is extremely successful, and the First Nations aren't?" Nault says. "If we believe in building an economy in reserve communities, which is my number 1 priority, what's stopping us? I concluded that they need good governance and modern institutions."

And so he decided to reform the way reserves are run. Some critics charge that Nault's emphasis on band administration rests on an unfair assumption that native politicians tend to be corrupt and incompetent. But he says the main problem is not the well-publicized minority of bands with scandalously bad leadership - it's the hopelessly outmoded federal law that sets the framework for even the best-run communities. The Indian Act, which dates from 1876, doesn't even provide a clear legal definition of band powers. Nault's governance bill would specify, for the first time, that bands can enter into contracts, borrow money, buy and sell property, and generally conduct normal business. He says the goal is to make them more attractive to outside entrepreneurs - and unleash the entrepreneurial potential of the band members themselves.

But if bands are going to have more flexibility to lure investment, Nault says they must also become more reliable in administering their own affairs. His act would require them to pass formal codes within two years for how they choose chiefs and councils, and basic rules for how their local administrations will function. Any reserve that doesn't adopt its own code will fall under a "default regime" of rules set by the federal government. Just as important, bands will have to set themselves new financial accountability codes, with minimum requirements such as annual budgets and independently audited financial statements.

It all sounds almost unassailably sensible. But opposition from Coon Come and many other chiefs is fierce. One of their big complaints is that Nault is concentrating on overhauling the Indian Act instead of working to get First Nations out from under the sway of a hated law. "Why should we build on a racist document?" Coon Come says. He argues the only acceptable starting point for improving the lives of natives is negotiating comprehensive self-government agreements with individual First Nations, and settling the outstanding treaty claims of many bands. Coon Come contends that a reform that covers almost all bands, like Nault's, can't possibly build in enough flexibility to meet each one's aspirations, so it's inevitably Ottawa's solution. "One-size-fits-all won't work," Coon Come told Maclean's. "What Nault is doing is maintaining an administrative stranglehold over status Indians."

Coon Come is a fiery, sometimes persuasive verbal combatant. But his charge that Nault wants to keep natives under Ottawa's thumb may be a hard one to make stick. In fact, the main thrust of the governance act is to transfer authority from Nault's own hands to reserve communities. Under the Indian Act as it now stands, the Indian affairs minister has the power to disallow bylaws passed by band councils (he often does, when councils overstep the limited role assigned to them by the act). The new governance law would eliminate that, and give bands much clearer power to make local laws. Bands could decide, without fear of being overruled, to enact a wide range of laws for their own purposes, from preserving their language to setting up a local health board. They will also gain the authority to adopt zoning laws, regulate business activities, and conserve natural resources.

But according to Coon Come, all that misses the point. He says the main limitation bands face today is not a lack of legal authority but a plain shortage of money. Asked if he believes Canadian taxpayers could be persuaded that the $7.2 billion a year Ottawa now pours into Aboriginal programs is insufficient, Coon Come suggests another generation of poverty and despair will be the cost of failing to spend more. "Let's talk about the cost of doing nothing, the need to inject some initial dollars in order to give an opportunity for young people," he says. Still, even with more money, the current reserve system should only be seen as an undesirable stage on the way to negotiating self-government - the objective that Coon Come urges Nault to focus on instead of "tinkering" with the Indian Act .

Nault seems barely able to contain his impatience when asked why he doesn't see self-government as the only solution. "My answer to that is we're not negotiating very fast, are we?" Nault says. "At the rate we're going, it will be 60 years before we have all First Nations outside of the Indian Act." Only a handful of First Nations - including Coon Come's James Bay Cree - have negotiated various forms of self-government. The latest to bargain its way out from under the Indian Act were the Nisga'a of northwestern British Columbia. And that cash-and-land deal, finalized in April, 2000, was so controversial it paved the way for the current B.C. referendum over the future of such modern treaty-making. With the process stalled in B.C., and painfully slow everywhere else, Nault decided to pursue another course.

Those who have worked with him before expect Nault, 46, to be more determined than diplomatic in pushing his governance act. He is the image of bulldoggish resolve. The one-time forward with the Junior A Kenora Thistles has the low-to-the-ice build of a hard man to check off the puck. He cites his years as a railway union official - he once worked as a conductor - as his preparation for bruising politics. "Union life is a lot like political life," Nault says. "There's a lot of clashing internally that doesn't get talked about."

He entered federal politics in the 1988 election, when the Liberals were still in opposition, and in Ottawa found a mentor in Doug Young, a veteran of New Brunswick provincial politics and another plain-spoken, old-style rural MP. Young emerged as the most powerful East Coast cabinet minister after the Liberals won the 1993 election, and Nault served for a while as his parliamentary secretary. Chrétien saw the hard-working MP from Kenora as an up-and-comer, and plucked him into cabinet as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1999. Having chosen him for the job, Chrétien left Nault to do it; Nault says he has spoken to the Prime Minister only twice since taking on the post.

He says it was the cabinet job he coveted. "I am the only Indian affairs minister in history who lobbied for the job," he claims. He had travelled regularly to the many First Nations communities in his riding back when he was an ordinary MP, immersing himself in the details of their relationships with the department he would later take over. "I came into the department knowing a lot about the policies and programs," he says. "I had lived them every time I went to a community."

That background impressed some native leaders. But as they got to know the new minister, it was his forceful personality, not his ready grasp of details, that came to define his relationship with them. Marlene Poitras, chief executive officer of the Athabasca Tribal Council, an organization of five Alberta reserves singled out by Indian Affairs as a success story for forging a working relationship with the oil and gas industry, found Nault a breath of fresh air initially. But she says the way he has single-mindedly pushed his governance act lacks diplomacy. "My first reaction was, 'Well, at least we have someone who knows the issues,' " Poitras says. "But since then, I've found the minister's approach is, 'I'm going to do this.' It puts everybody on the defensive."

Or, in the case of Coon Come, on the offensive. At 46, the veteran Cree chief is Nault's age, and a good match for him. Though slim where Nault is squarely built, Coon Come has a black belt in karate, and a reputation for thriving on conflict. He first came to national prominence during the tense days of Quebec's 1995 referendum. As grand chief of the James Bay Cree, he ran his own plebiscite in advance - a vote on whether the Cree would rather stick with Canada or go with Quebec in the case of separation. When 96 per cent voted to stay in Canada, the resulting debate over whether an independent Quebec might lose a huge swath of northern land may have helped the federalist cause win by a slim margin.

Any chance of Coon Come staying popular with the Canadian public vanished, however, when he denounced the country as racist at a United Nations conference in South Africa last year. The bad press he received, and an angry reaction from Nault, haven't softened his tone. "If the marginalization of our peoples continues," he says, "we're going down a path of cultural, social, demographic - I dare use the word - genocide."

That's not the voice of compromise. But, then, as Jean Chrétien learned the hard way 33 years ago, changes to the Indian Act don't come easily. For Nault, seeing his bill become law when the House returns next fall would be by far the biggest accomplishment of his political career. For Coon Come, derailing the most ambitious Indian Affairs legislative initiative in decades would prove he can get results, not just stir things up. With the personal stakes of the main combatants so high, it's easy to lose sight of the far greater consequences for hundreds of blighted reserves. Beyond Nault's determination and Coon Come's anger, this is a debate about the way many impoverished Canadians live - and what, if anything, is to be done about it.

Maclean's July 1, 2002