After a four-year stint managing other portfolios in the National Assembly, Geoffrey Kelley, Liberal MNA for Jacques Cartier, is back handling Aboriginal Affairs, after taking the position over from Pierre Corbeil.
“Working on the Native questions in Quebec is something that I find a very exciting challenge,” said Kelley.
The Nation spoke with Kelley eight days after his reappointment. He said he is still familiarizing himself with where he had left off back in 2007, Kelley already had some ideas as to where he wanted to direct his focus.
“There is so much work that needs to be done, but there are already a lot of things that work well. Part of my job is to remind Quebecers and First Nations of the progress that we have already made, but then to identify those challenges and those areas where we need to do a better job and then work together to improve things,” said Kelley.
First and foremost, Kelley said his biggest priority is to visit communities and reconnect with the Native leaders he worked alongside in the past and to meet those who have come into power since he left the position previously.
Kelley said he prided himself on having visited 33 communities when he last held the position in 2007, his new goal is to break that record so he can get to know each community’s issues personally.
Kelley said he believes Premier Jean Charest gave him the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio again because of his previous successes in working with First Nations. One example of this is how he, along with the Grand Council of the Crees and the city of Val-d’Or, managed to raise the funding for the First Nations Pavilion at the Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue / l’Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in partnership with the federal and provincial governments.
How he has behaved personally on the job also factored into it.
“I think it is very important to deal with the First Nations directly, to be as available as possible. I am known as someone who has a great respect for the language, the history and the traditions of the First Nations. I see them very much as an essential component of Quebec’s past, present and future and I would like to underline future,” said Kelley.
In terms of the future for First Nations in Quebec, Kelley wants to get back to basics. Though he acknowledges that economic development is always a priority when it comes to improving the quality of life on First Nations reserves, ensuring that there is a social foundation for this takes more precedence for Kelley. After having spent the last few years on education and social services committees, he is hoping to take this expertise to First Nations communities by focusing on education and training for First Nations youth.
“I have a great prejudice towards education. If education and training are not made available, a lot of the things that we dream about won’t become possible,” said Kelley.
When he was last responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, Kelley said he was also looking into Youth Protection to see if there was a model that would be more appropriate for Aboriginal communities. This is another area that he will look into again to see what kind of progress has been made during his absence and what can to be done to improve the situation of many Aboriginals.
Though there has been some concern over the kinds of projects some communities had been in negotiations, Kelley said he wants to reassure that although there has been a cabinet shift, nothing has been lost and he will be briefed on every detail of outgoing Minister Corbeil’s dealings with the communities. For that matter, one of Corbeil’s assistants under Aboriginal Affairs is actually staying on with Kelley to ensure that the transition goes smoothly.
Kelley spoke with enthusiasm about getting to work right away to improve outcomes for Quebec’s First Nations.
“My first priority is to get to know what their issues are and if you are in a small First Nation community, the government can be pretty intimidating. We have many departments, many ministers and many political attachés and I can see how easily these communities can get lost dealing with the government. My office serves as the doors they go through to try to steer their way through various government departments; that is part of what our role is,” said Kelley.