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Two Aboriginal Cabinet Members Mark Historic First

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Aboriginal leaders expressed consternation at the Conservative majority in the new federal government but were heartened to have two aboriginal voices in the cabinet, a historic first.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq of Nunavut will stay on in her post. The Inuk minister will also oversee the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency as part of her cabinet duties, Postmedia News reported on May 18.

From Newfoundland and Labrador comes Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue, an Innu Nation leader who has served in politics since the 1980s, Postmedia News said.

"I think it's really significant we've got the two of them in the cabinet, and we welcome it," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo told Postmedia News.

Métis and Inuit leaders expressed similar sentiments. Métis National Council (MNC) president Clément Chartier "commended Prime Minister Harper on his appointment of two Aboriginal Cabinet members, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Pensahue," according to an MNC media release.

For her part Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the advocacy organization serving the Inuit peoples of Canada, said she was "particularly pleased" to see two aboriginal Canadians appointed.

"I am delighted to see my fellow Inuit leader, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, continue in her role as the Minister of Health, and take on the role of Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency," she said in an ITK statement. "We had an historic meeting on February 4th, 2009 when I spoke to her as a minister of the Crown for the first time in the Inuit language."

ITK's statement called the appointments "another remarkable moment in Canadian political history."

Further, Simon said, "Inuit join with our fellow Aboriginal peoples, and all Canadians, in applauding the appointment of Mr. Peter Penashue, former president of the Innu Nation to be Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada."

The appointments come on the heels of victory by a historic number of Parliamentary aboriginal candidates—seven—in the May 2 election. Besides Aglukkaq and Penashue, the others are Métis entrepreneur and filmmaker Rod Bruinooge; Romeo Saganash, who trounced incumbent Quebecois Bloc MP Yvon Lévesque with 45 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 18 percent (a win made all the sweeter because of Lévesque’s remark during the campaign that Saganash’s aboriginal status made him unelectable, according to the Montreal Gazette); Jonathan Genest-Jourdain of the New Democratic Party (NDP) will represent a district of Quebec, and Rob Clarke, Cree, of Saskatchewan, Métis Shelly Glover of Manitoba and Rod Bruinooge, also Métis and of Manitoba, will join Aglukkaq in the MPs Conservative contingent.