First Nations leaders in Ontario have slammed the provincial government for apparently demoting Aboriginal issues in a recent cabinet shuffle.

Last week, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty took the Aboriginal Affairs Ministry away from its dedicated minister, Brad Duguid, and placed it under the power of a minister already fully occupied with an important ministry: Attorney General Chris Bentley.

“It seems like we’re going backwards,” said Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

McGuinty had established Aboriginal Affairs as a separate ministry in 2007 following the Ipperwash inquiry, which investigated the death of protester Dudley George.

Given the ongoing standoff between Aboriginal protesters and developers in Caledonia, Ontario, however, the premier may have wondered how effective the ministry was at easing tensions among First Nations communities.

“There’s one minister who has responsibility for both separate ministries and I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Chris Bentley,” said McGuinty.

But at a time when battles over mining, land claims and worsening poverty are intensifying, having a part-time minister handling the file hasn’t won the premier any fans.

“I’m definitely frustrated and very disappointed that the premier does not see aboriginal issues as worthy of having a stand-alone minister,” said Beardy.