As the new Liberal critic for Northern Affairs, says Yukon MP Larry Bagnell,he's in a primary position to ensure previous federal commitments to the North are fulfilled.
He said he's willing bide his time and to give Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his new Conservative federal government the opportunity to show that it will meet existing obligations, as he promised during the recent election campaign.
'My first priority is to make sure things that started, or beginning to start, are carried forward,' Bagnell said in an interview Wednesday
'I will give the (Indian Affairs and Northern Development) minister Jim Prentice the benefit of the doubt as he starts off, but if he falls down in any of these areas, then I will certainly be pushing hard to make sure these things that important to the North are realized.'
Under Opposition Leader Bill Graham, Bagnell was appointed along with 40 other Liberal MPs as the shadow cabinet in the official Opposition benches.
Harper's cabinet, Bagnell again said, is too small to effectively represent the interests of Canadians. The number of Liberals in the shadow cabinet reflects more accurately what it takes to run the country's corporate headquarters, he added.
Though the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is technically one department and comes under one minister, his role as critic will focus on development issues, while fellow critic Anita Neville will handle the Indian Affairs portfolio.
Under the short-lived government of Paul Martin, the Liberals had split the Indian Affairs and Northern Development duties between Andy Scott with Indian Affairs and Ethel Blondin Andrew with Northern Development, Bagnell explained. Blondin Andrew was defeated in the election held a month ago today.
The veteran MP, who was first elected in 2000, said while the critic portfolios are split, it's impossible to talk about development in the North without dealing with the issue of new and existing agreements that very much include first nations.
Bagnell said he wants to smooth out concerns related to the implementation of land claim settlements that give rise to self-governing first nations.
He wants to ensure the Conservatives live up to the Liberal promises made to Canada's aboriginal leaders in Kelowna, B.C., last November, including its commitment to settle the issues that grew out of the abuse at Indian residential schools.
You can't have development until the matter of governance is sorted out, including aboriginal governance, he said, noting the concentration of aboriginal people in Canada is highest in the North.
Bagnell said he wants to make sure the Conservatives provide the money promised under the host of infrastructure programs promised for the North, and promises of of alternate fiscal arrangements to address issues specific to the North, such as the high cost of transportation and what it means for northern health care budgets.
There is the need to ensure Ottawa keeps pace with the two northern natural gas pipeline proposals, and that it maintain its staunch opposition to exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he said.
Bagnell said federal policies and initiatives to address climate change are particularly important to the North.
It's no secret in Ottawa that the Indian Affairs and Northern Development portfolio is among the least coveted by would-be ministers.
With the emerging significance of the North, the interest in its resources natural gas, diamonds and with Canada's need to assert its sovereignty over the North, the Indian Affairs and Northern Development portfolio is growing in prominence, he said.
Bagnell said as a critic of a government with a minority of seats in the House of Commons, he expects his voice to carry a little weight compared to facing a majority government.
Not only does he believe the minister will be more attentive to issues raised, he suspects the bureaucracy in Prentice's department will go the extra step to ensure Bagnell is briefed and understands initiatives coming forward that will affect the North.
He said the bureaucracy, particularly in a minority government situation, has a vested interest to see that nothing comes out of the blue to slow down or halt forward movement on issues.
As a regular MP, Bagnell is paid approximately $160,000 annually, provided with a $240,000 annual budget for staff and office rental.
When he was elevated under the Martin government as parliamentary secretary to assist with the Natural Resources minister, he was assigned one additional staff member, though no more salary.
He said as far as he knows, as the Liberal critic, he gets the same pay and allotment for staff as regular MPs.
'I am essentially at the regular MP rate, I just have to do more work,' he said.
One of the first things he did after being named to his critic post was phone the three territorial premiers.