Lone Innu in cabinet, Peter Penashue, won't be at talks with aboriginal leaders

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OTTAWA - Absent from Friday's meeting between the federal government and First Nations leaders will be one of two aboriginals in the Harper cabinet: Peter Penashue.

The minister of intergovernmental affairs and former head of the Innu Nation in Newfoundland and Labrador wasn't invited to the talks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be joined by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq — the other aboriginal in Harper's cabinet — will also be in attendance.

"I recognize that Friday’s working meeting is focused on specific issues – notably treaty implementation and economic development," Penashue said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

"These two priorities will be ably advanced by the prime minister and the minister of aboriginal affairs, together with certain of my colleagues responsible for current active files in those areas."

Penashue has found himself under a cloud in recent months over irregularities in election spending, including going over campaign limits and accepting free flights.

But he also has extensive experience dealing with some of the very same issues now straining federal-First Nations relations.

As head of the Innu Nation in the 1990s, Penashue was instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of the Innu living in Davis Inlet.

Footage of shantytowns where children roamed the streets sniffing gasoline and saying they wanted to die was broadcast around the world, creating an embarrassment for the government.

The community was eventually relocated in order to provide them better access to traditional hunting grounds and day-to-day services.

Now, Idle No More protests across the country, coupled with the actions of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence — subsisting since Dec. 11 on a diet of fish broth and medicinal tea — have attracted a similar level of international attention.

Penashue is no stranger either to the fight by aboriginal groups for a fair share of natural resources revenue, one of the key demands being made by First Nations leaders going into Friday's talks.

He helped broker a deal with the Voisey's Bay nickel mine that ensure the Innu received jobs and also benefits from the massive development.

Penashue went on to help seal a deal between the Innu and the province in order to develop a massive hydroelectric project on the Lower Churchill River.

The themes of that debate mirror some of the issues at play Friday — the requirement for consultation with aboriginal groups over natural resources development and how much of the subsequent revenue they should earn.

A spokesperson for the prime minister wouldn't say why Penashue wasn't invited to Friday's talks.

His win in the riding of Labrador in the last federal election gave the Tories their only seat in the province and their first victory there since 1968.

"I have spoken widely with our caucus and First Nation leaders about my desire for First Nations to work with the government to advance First Nation living standards and economic opportunities,” he said.

Organizations: First Nations, Canadian Press

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, OTTAWA, Davis Inlet Lower Churchill River

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