Former Aboriginal affairs minister Jake Stewart says being bounced out of cabinet and onto the backbenches gives him the freedom to keep pushing for an inquiry into systemic racism in the New Brunswick justice system.
Tuesday's cabinet shuffle sent the four-term MLA from Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin to the backbenches of the Progressive Conservative government after two years in cabinet.
"There's a certain level of freedom that comes with not being in cabinet," he said, promising to use that latitude to speak out on issues affecting his riding and on Indigenous issues, including systemic racism.
Being removed "is not going to deter me from anything. My resolve will likely be even stronger than it was."
Stewart joined First Nations chiefs and others in calling for an inquiry on the subject after two Indigenous people were shot and killed by police this year.
That put him at odds with Premier Blaine Higgs, and Stewart said while he muted his call during the recent election campaign, he has not backed down.
"My stance on the inquiry has never changed," he said. "I supported the inquiry because I understood what it was and why it was important."
Stewart is also unhappy that the Aboriginal affairs position no longer a full-time cabinet post as it was when he held the job.
New Saint John Harbour MLA Arlene Dunn was handed the job Tuesday along with three other cabinet roles.
"I don't like it," Stewart said, emphasizing it's not a criticism of Dunn but of the multiple duties. "I think the relationship is so important that I don't think that was a good idea."
Stewart also would not commit to serving out a full four-year term, making him the second PC MLA dropped from cabinet who's not ruling out leaving the legislature.
On Tuesday Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West PC MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason also left the door open to leaving politics before the next election.
Stewart said he has thought for years about going back to university for a masters or law degree, and has also been approached about running in the next federal election.
"My mind isn't really there," he said. "Right now I'm going to focus on my riding. So you never know."
If he and Anderson-Mason both resigned, it would leave Higgs with a thin one-seat majority in the legislature.
Inquiry call cost Stewart his role, chief says
Metepenagiag First Nation Chief Bill Ward said he's convinced Stewart's vocal push for an inquiry was the reason Higgs dropped him from cabinet.
"It seems that way to me, 100 per cent," Ward said. "That was definitely a sticking point between him and the premier."
Higgs said Tuesday he wasn't punishing dissenters when he dropped six ministers.
"If that was the situation, we'd probably have a lot less people in cabinet," he said.
"I've always said I welcome that diverse conversation. It's not a reflection of differences of opinion."
Stewart said he didn't know if his push for an inquiry was a factor but said he wasn't surprised because nothing about politics surprises him anymore.
Ward said another disappointment with Stewart's removal and Dunn's appointment is she's the latest in a series of Aboriginal affairs ministers serving short tenures. He said he's dealt with four ministers since becoming chief in 2015.
After initial meetings to help ministers get acquainted with First Nations issues, "the follow-up never really truly happens, then there's a shuffle, another minister, then an election and another minister," he said.
Stewart's initiative to allow Indigenous witnesses in court cases to take their oaths on an eagle feather was symbolic, but "it was a start," Ward said.
"He did end up getting a good handle on the issues at hand and he was really pushing for them, but he really didn't get much traction."
Stewart took his oath as an MLA Monday on a Bible and an eagle feather.
Once a full-time job
When Stewart was appointed in 2018, the PC government bragged about him being the first Aboriginal affairs minister to hold the job full-time with no other cabinet duties. "Rebuilding this relationship deserves a full-time minister," said the PC Speech from the Throne.
"It seems as though that it's not as important as it was in 2018 if there's no singular responsibility for a minister there," Ward said.
Dunn's other ministerial responsibilities are economic development and small business, Opportunities New Brunswick and immigration.
Dunn said Tuesday Indigenous issues are "near and dear to my heart" and she had worked with many First Nations during her career with building trades unions.
"I think it's imperative that we engage them in coming up with solutions for their communities," she said.
But she also joked that it was hard to even name her various cabinet roles. "Please don't ask me which ones they are right now," she said.
Stewart said when he took on the job in 2018, staff at Aboriginal Affairs told him that previous ministers would stop by every eight or nine weeks. "I probably spent three or four days a week there."
Dunn's multiple roles "could work out, but that really depends on her and her schedule," he said.
Miramichi not represented in cabinet
Stewart said while he's not disappointed in his removal from cabinet, many people in his sprawling riding are. "They really believed that I would be in and they're really hurt over it," he said. "Some are mad, some are sad."
The shuffle leaves the Miramichi region with no cabinet representation.
"I'm going to do what I do best," he said. "I'm going to be Jake Stewart.
"I'm going to work for my constituents. I'm going to be a voice for my constituents, a voice for those who need it, I'm going to be a strong voice for the Indigenous peoples."