Social services in Alberta are going to change, says newly minted minister Mike Cardinal, the first status Indian in the Alberta cabinet.
The appointment, however, does not signal a singular focus on Native welfare issues. But the Athabasca-Lac La Biche MLA says his background and experience will help make policies and programs more appropriate to the Native community.
"I m not a Native politician. I am, a politician who is Native, a treaty Indian," Cardinal said. "On the other hand, I have the additional experience of being Native."
The rookie-minister - one of several back-bench promotions following Ralph Klein's successful bid to lead the Alberta Tories - promised to reform Alberta's $950 million welfare system.
The department's new focus will be on work-for-welfare programs to put unemployed Albertans back in the labor force through public works programs, Cardinal said.
Although the policy has been criticized as a "make work" program, Cardinal said employing people to clean parks or work on community building projects will help break the "welfare cycle."
"In the long term, we have a lot of people to put back to work," he said, adding that public works projects will create jobs in high "under-employment" regions like remote northern communities.
"I want to make sure that the young people - the employable, the trainable - are able to get back in the workforce."
Cardinal has already sparked ministerial controversy by saying his department is prepared to pay for bus tickets to send unemployed people from outside Alberta back home. In an interview with Native media, Cardinal struck by the offer, calling it a humanitarian offer to help people going through hard times get back to their community and family support networks.
Cardinal also said he expects to be carefully watched during the first months in one of the province's largest ministries.
"We do have non-Native people keeping their eyes open to see how Natives function in the cabinet," he said. "I found I had to work twice as hard to get nominated and elected. You have to work very hard to get equal with the other guy."
Cardinal, who was born in Slave Lake about 150 km north of Edmonton, was first elected to the Alberta legislature in 1989. He is married with two children and has a 35-year record of community service in norther Alberta.