Ethel Blondin-Andrew is the most powerful First Nations person in the government of Canada. It’s a constant balancing act, knowing when to give and when to take. “You have to dance with the ones who brung you,” says Blondin, a Dene woman born in Fort Norman, NWT and, now, the new Liberal Minister of Youth and Training. “You have to know the rules of political survival.”

The Nation’s Alex Roslin spoke to her in late November, a month after the Liberals swept the federal election, to get some hints about how her government plans to deal with the Crees and other First Nations.

Blondin-Andrew spoke frankly on some issues like extinguishment and women’s rights. But when it came to one key issue – Great Whale – she had to dance.

How did you get interested in politics?

Before I got involved in politics, I was a bureaucrat. From 1984 to 1986, I was at the Public Service Commission of Canada, and from 1986 until I was first elected in 1988, I was Assistant Deputy Minister of Culture and Communications. In everything I’ve done, I’ve wanted to effect change and I began to realize how limited that was as a bureaucrat. I was more into administration, operations and maintenance than policy-making.

I was always pronouncing myself on policy, which wasn’t my job. I would have had to sooner or later seek a mandate or get into trouble or get fired for making policy pronouncements.

Were you surprised to be made a minister? I understand you were hoping to be made Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Well, I was pleased to become Minister of Youth and Training. It’s a great opportunity, you know. I didn’t fall over surprised, but I was pleasantly pleased. I wasn’t hoping for anything because I think it’s foolish in politics to hope.

What’s it like being a First Nations person in the middle of the Ottawa political system?

It’s a delicate balance. You continually have to know how far you can push something and when to retreat. You have to know the rules of political survival, too. You have to sort of dance with the ones who brung you and you also have to know when there’s time for intellectual sparring and when it’s time to get to work and get things done.

What challenges do you face as a northerner?

Travel. My family is up north. I’m lucky because I had my children when I was quite young and my kids are all basically grown up. They’re on their own. But I like to get home because it keeps you planted on the ground. You learn not to lose touch.

I always remember a very simple rule: I wasn’t elected in Ottawa; I was elected in the Northwest Territories. These people down here don’t vote for me. You’ve got to remember that all the Tory cabinet members went down except for one. Being a big, powerful person is not necessarily going to get you re-elected.

How about as a woman? Do you find Ottawa to be an old boy’s club?

I find any kind of restriction that’s imposed to be very artificial and inconsequential because I was raised in a family where the women are very, very strong. My grandmother was a matriarch, my grandfather was a chief. My grandmother was an advisor to a lot of the male leaders. I’ve never known what gender inequality is. I’ve always been raised to believe I’m equal.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People just passed through Montreal. What do you hope will come of its work?

I believe things will come out that will reaffirm certain ideas about self-government. There will be policy things, like land claims and extinguishment. On process, there will be recommendations – on education, on the rights of children. It will reaffirm or else add a few new ideas.

But it doesn’t sound like anything new or revolutionary.

There’s always room for new ideas. I think there will be some very strong recommendations. What will be revolutionary is if the government responds in the way the Royal Commission recommends.

One of the issues the commission is focusing on is extinguishment [the forced relinquishment of aboriginal rights in exchange for settlement of a land claim]. Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come opposes this policy. What’s your position?

There’s an approach being bandied about called “affirmation of rights,” rather than extinguishment. I think it’s a great idea. What we have to do is enact our election platform – a major overhaul of land-claims policy, specifically in three areas. One is to remove the precondition for blanket extinguishment. Two is to make a provision for self-government to be negotiated within a claim. The other is to create an independent Indian land-claims commission.

So you think the current land-claims process is flawed?

I find it compromising because the government funds, presides over, adjudicates over and consults justices on issues that affect claims. It’s rather contradictory and a conflict-of-interest.

The Liberal Party supported the Charlottetown Accord even though the Native Women’s Association of Canada had strong reservations. Do you think there was room for amendments to the accord?

The debate is still out on collective versus individual rights. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an individual-rights document. We’ve had problems in our community because the rights of individual women have been abused, and in some cases totally ignored. That’s a legitimate complaint on the part of those women. However, there are communities that have had a role and respect for women’s rights, so you can’t tar everyone with the same brush.

Having said that, I believe the sticking point was not necessarily the lack of provision for protection, but a lack of trust on the part of the women and on the part of other people who didn’t support the Charlottetown Accord because of past injustices and some current situations. But you cannot legislate trust.

What’s the answer then?

The answer is we have a problem of rebuilding and healing in our communities and we have serious problems there that need to be dealt with. How we deal with it I don’t think is necessarily the constitution.

Or the Charter of Rights?

Well, you know, it’s a guide. It has the full force of law, but it isn’t everything. You can’t legislate what happens in the hearts and minds of people.

We wanted to get some hints from your government on some important issues for Crees. First, what do you think of the Great Whale and NBR hydro-projects?

You have to remember I’m one of the people who went on behalf of the Crees of James Bay to the New York State legislature to speak against the bill that was going to purchase hydro. I went to a lot of trouble. We did, in fact, end up winning.

Do you mean there was trouble from your own party?

Just trouble in general. [Tory leadership hopeful Jean] Charest was after me. The Conservatives were very upset with me.

How about your own party?

I sought approval and I was given approval. They did not turn against me. They trusted me. We’ve taken a position on Rafferty, Oldman River, Anwar. Why is Great Whale hands off?

So will there be more federal intervention in Great Whale with the Liberals in power?

I can’t say that. I’m not the Minister of Environment. I’m not the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. I cannot even begin to make a statement on that.

What is your personal view?

I don’t have a personal view because I’m a minister. You know that.

But I guess you’ll be pushing in cabinet and caucus for more intervention.

I can’t even say that because I’m not a full cabinet minister. Generally, the rule for caucus is that caucus belongs to those who don’t have a role at cabinet.

Let me read you something Matthew Coon-Come recently told the Royal Commission: “Even at the UN and elsewhere, the federal government leads the effort to hinder our attempts to establish a minimum recognition of aboriginal rights.” Do you think that will change under your government?

You’ll have to ask the Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy, the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. It certainly wouldn’t be me who would speak on that. But if you look at my statements, it’s been fairly clear where I’ve stood in the past.

Another big issue raised by Matthew Coon-Come was Quebec sovereignty. Crees have many concerns about their own relationship with both Quebec and Canada. What would you tell the Crees on this issue?

I think the First Nations of Quebec have a very strong federal presence. They have two Acts they can invoke to remain within Canada if Quebec separates. That bodes well for the government as well as for the First Nations of Quebec. Part of our platform is to develop what we call the bilateral treaty process, where these kinds of issues can be dealt with in earnest. Mr. [Ron] Irwin {the new Indian Affairs Minister] is already consulting aboriginal peoples on these kinds of issues. He probably should be meeting with the Crees of James Bay pretty soon. [No meeting is planned at the moment -ed.]

So do you think the Crees should invoke these Acts to remain within Canada?

I would believe yes. Aboriginal self-determination is based on some very time- honoured traditions – sharing, cooperation, not alienation and separation. It’s based on belonging to and being equal with others, not going for total independence. I believe the Crees of James Bay are very beholden to that view. This is their country.

You mean Canada?

Oh yeah. I think it’s understood that the Crees of James Bay are not looking for isolation or alienation. They’re looking for equality and partnership.

Are you worried about the debate over sovereignty? It could be very divisive.

I’m not fearful at all. I think Canada will endure. We’re going to go through a few rough years, but I really believe that outside the constitutional issue we have some pressing issues – high unemployment, poverty. I think reality is starting to set in with some of the people who have other aspirations. You can’t fight for the independence of a poor country.