Anishinabek chief has ‘great respect’ for MP’s ‘integrity’Tim Naumetz
The Ottawa Citizen; with files from The Vancouver Sun

Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chuck Strahl has shown several aspects of character during his 14 years in the House of Commons and 18 months in cabinet, but two things stand out: he’s got a hard nose, and he’s a fighter.

There’s another side to Mr. Strahl that could be even more important when, as the new Indian affairs minister, he tackles one of the most complex and sensitive issues the government faces.

He’s a sincerely friendly guy –tough as nails, no question, but he can get even the dourest NDP MP smiling at his cracks in the Commons.

A leading figure in Ontario’s aboriginal community was quick yesterday to welcome Mr. Strahl as the successor to Jim Prentice — a tough act to follow as Mr. Prentice is one of the most knowledgeable experts on first-nation affairs and land claims in the country.

“I have a great respect for Strahl’s integrity and I’m confident that the relationship we’ve established will continue under his leadership,” said John Beaucage, grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation, one of the largest aboriginal political organizations in Canada outside the Assembly of First Nations.

An assistant to Wilton Littlechild, a former Progressive Conservative MP from 1988 to 1993 and AFN regional chief for Alberta, was optimistic, saying Mr. Littlechild, who knows Mr. Prentice well, is also familiar with Mr. Strahl from his role as agriculture minister.

She noted Mr. Harper gave Mr. Prentice the mandate to overhaul the land-claims process and end the glacial pace of settlements, and Mr. Strahl is expected to get similar support from the prime minister.

Doug Kelly, grand chief of the Sto:lo First Nation, said he was nervous when he heard Mr. Prentice could be bumped of the post. But he’s heartened that Mr. Strahl is taking over, given that he has worked and dealt with the First Nations as an MP for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon and has the “sensitivity and commitment” to move into the job.

“While (Mr. Prentice) was the most powerful Minister of Indian affairs we had for some time, he was also the most invisible,” Mr. Kelly said. “He was so busy with other demands, our issues didn’t always make the top of his agenda.”

Mr. Strahl became renowned as agriculture minister for his controversial and long-running battle to loosen the grip the Canadian Wheat Board has over grain marketing in western Canada, losing a battle in that war earlier this month when a Federal Court judge derailed the government’s attempt to end the board’s monopoly on barley sales without parliamentary approval.

NDP leader Jack Layton called for Mr. Strahl’s dismissal over the ruling, though that had nothing to do with the portfolio change yesterday. Mr. Harper simply needed Mr. Prentice, one of his closest ministers if not the closest, for a different job.

But it was when Mr. Strahl was in opposition that his strong character first gained national attention.

Even though he privately and humourously describes himself as a thespian, having dabbled in drama at Trinity Western University in B.C., his electors likely already were aware of his capacity to take on tough jobs, including the logging-yard work he did as a young man that finally caught up to him in 2005.

The fibres he breathed in from the asbestos-lined brakes on the log haulers led to a diagnosis that year of mesothelioma, a malignant cancer that attacks the membrane around the lungs and is so rare it has been found in only a few hundred Canadians. If you have recently found out that you have mesothelioma then go to this page to see what you can do to start getting better.

Mr. Strahl began treatment, and never looked back, campaigning for asbestos awareness while picking up the same pace that made him such a successful politician following his initial appearance as a Reform MP on Parliament Hill in 1993. His talks acquired a standard line — that he couldn’t even pronounce the name of the cancer that struck him.

A year after his diagnosis, soon after Mr. Harper picked him for one of the most demanding jobs in cabinet, a Vancouver Sun story headlined him as “The unstoppable Chuck Strahl.”