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Greg Rickford could bring more collegial approach to Natural Resources portfolio

OTTAWA - The arc of Greg Rickford's career isn't the norm but should give him an interesting perspective on his latest professional challenge.

From nurse to lawyer to MBA to member of Parliament, and now the new federal Natural Resources minister, Rickford, 46, has spent a lot of time dealing with First Nations issues in Ontario's rugged and remote northwest.

Since last July, he's been immersed in helping shepherd a massive northern Ontario mining development proposal through the federal-provincial funding labyrinth — a file fraught with political one-upmanship that Rickford has mostly avoided.

So when Prime Minister Stephen Harper tapped the Kenora, Ont., MP on Wednesday to replace Joe Oliver, the newly promoted finance minister, even the Conservative government's critics were ready to cut him some slack.

Those who know Rickford say he'll bring a collegial, level-headed approach to some of the biggest economic files on the Harper government's plate.

"He's a practical, smart and down-to-earth guy," said Geoff Norquay, a former senior aide to Harper who knows Rickford well.

Rickford was not available for an interview Wednesday and his office was not certain when he would be ready to speak to the media about his new portfolio.

But his record tells something of what he brings to the new job.

As Norquay put it: "I think he will be a champion at the cabinet table of better understanding of the aboriginal dimensions of resource development and the need for a much more proactive outreach by both government and business to ensure and build the successful involvement of First Nations communities in the resource economy."

During a housing crisis in Attiwaspiskat in the winter of 2011-12, Rickford stepped in to handle the public diplomacy for then-minister John Duncan, managing to lower the temperature somewhat on a battle that was threatening to shatter the relationship between First Nations and the Harper government.

He has lived and worked as a nurse and later a lawyer in Pikangikum, Ont., among the poorest aboriginal communities in the country, so Rickford has first-hand knowledge of the desperate economic conditions and isolation of some First Nations.

Michael Gravelle, Ontario's provincial minister of Northern Development and Mines, has dealt with Rickford on a number of issues — notably the proposed Ring of Fire mining development in northwestern Ontario — and calls him a friend despite their partisan party differences.

He welcomed Rickford's promotion, calling it a "very important connection" to have the Ring of Fire directly under the federal natural resources minister.

"We've said this is a project of national significance that they should partner with us on," said Gravelle.

The Ontario Liberal said Oliver's promotion to finance minister also bodes well, as two top cogs in the Harper cabinet are now fully up to speed and cognizant of the importance of the huge mining development.

NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian said the Harper government has done a poor job of ensuring there is "social licence" for major resource development projects, particularly pipeline developments.

"For the government's sake, if nothing else, the government needs to set a whole new tone," on resource development said Julian, who said he personally likes Rickford and looks forward to working with him.

"Does he have the background? Yes. Will he establish that new tone? I certainly hope so."

Keith Stewart, a politically attuned researcher for Greenpeace Canada, groused that all important decisions in the Conservative government come straight from the Prime Minister's Office.

"But the willingness of a minister to talk to those who disagree with the government's agenda would be a welcome change," said Stewart, acknowledging Rickford's reputation.

The Greenpeace activist said the real test for the federal Natural Resources portfolio will come later this spring when the government makes a decision on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.

"Acknowledging that this pipeline cannot be built in the face of an unbroken wall of resistance from First Nations and their supporters would send a very clear message that this government is listening to more than just the oil industry," Stewart said.

Earlier this month, Enbridge announced it had hired Jim Prentice, a former Harper environment minister, to help broker a deal with First Nations who oppose its Northern Gateway project.

"They've recognized the importance — the necessity — of building better relations with First Nations and arriving at economic partnerships with First Nations that are respectful of the environment and First Nations' jurisdiction," Prentice said at the time.

Rickford's promotion may indicate the government has heard and acknowledged the same message.

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The Canadian Press

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