OTTAWA - Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice replaced some of the country's most seasoned federal land-claim negotiators with hand-picked choices who have comparatively less experience - including his former law partner.

Critics say the unusual political handling of the lucrative contracts is further proof that Conservative vows to shun patronage were hollow at best. It will also slow down complex land-claim talks as new negotiators climb steep learning curves, they say.

As native frustration builds, Prentice has said he'll move this spring to revamp a woefully backlogged land-claims system.

His spokesman, Bill Rodgers, says the minister directly intervened in naming new federal negotiators because pricey talks were taking too long with no end in sight.

Qualified ex-diplomats and other merit-based candidates of various political stripes were offered contracts that typically pay between $150 and $250 an hour, he said.

"It's not a partisan thing."

Still, the changes fly in the face of positive departmental reviews indicating no need to punt negotiators who were making progress, critics point out.

Sources say at least two negotiators stripped of their files were about a year or less away from settlement offers. It's unclear whether those moves will stall momentum in talks involving the 'Namgis First Nation and the Winalagalis Treaty Group in B.C., or the Innu of Labrador.

"When you have ministers hand-picking people to take care of these important files, then it's a patronage system," says Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch. The group lobbies for democratic reform and government accountability.

"And patronage often leads to cronyism and unethical waste.

"We still have not seen the promised Public Appointments Commission that was supposed to ensure all cabinet appointments are merit-based and not aimed at sending government law enforcement or policy-making in a specific direction."

Among the changes that have raised eyebrows:

Gavin Fitch, an environmental law specialist who was Prentice's former law partner in Calgary, replaces Tim Koepke, a longtime federal negotiator, at a table to re-start treaty talks with the Kaska Nation in northern B.C. and the Yukon.

Lawyer and arbitrator Stewart McInnes, a former Tory cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney, replaces Tom Molloy in Mi'kmaq treaty talks on the East Coast. Molloy is the legendary negotiator who sealed the historic Nunavut and Nisga'a land deals.

Molloy will stay on as federal negotiator for three sets of talks in B.C. and one in Quebec. A request for an interview with Molloy was passed on to the Department of Indian Affairs, where a spokeswoman declined on his behalf.

"It would be an awkward position for him," she said.

Rodgers says Prentice was troubled by the number of geographically far-flung files being handled by relatively few negotiators. There were also no women on contract.

Other changes made waves among departmental staff who typically recommend negotiators to the minister - not the other way around.

Eric Maldoff, a Montreal-based lawyer and federal negotiator since 1995, was not renewed to continue talks with the Innu of Labrador or the Northwest Territory Metis Nation.

"We gave him the worst files we had and he made them work," said a source who previously worked for Indian Affairs.

Maldoff, an adviser and member of the Liberal Party, supported Bob Rae's leadership bid.

And in B.C., Jim Doswell says he recently quit as a federal negotiator when he was offered renewal of just one of seven files. This, despite receiving positive annual reviews from Indian Affairs officials, he said.

"It's just purely politics," said Doswell, a consultant with more than 20 years experience working with First Nations on various issues. He unsuccessfully ran for the federal Liberals in 2000.

Despite notorious federal foot-dragging, he said he was close to making offers in talks with the 'Namgis First Nation and the Winalagalis Treaty Group in B.C.

Rodgers denied the replacements were politically motivated. He noted that other negotiators with strong Liberal ties are still on the payroll. They include strategist Warren Kinsella and Raymond Chretien, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and nephew of ex-prime minister Jean Chretien.

The appointment of Fitch, Prentice's former law partner, hasn't fazed the chief negotiator for the Kaska Dena Council representing communities in B.C. and the Yukon.

"He's done work in the oil and gas industry and has a good understanding of aboriginal law," said Dave Porter.

"We look forward to working with him."

Then again, the Kaska people look forward to working with anyone from Ottawa.

"We haven't been able to negotiate for almost five years now because we upset the (Liberal) government of the day," Porter said. "We upset the minister, we upset the negotiators in our demands at the table."

Federal officials simply packed up and left, he recalled.

"We rely on them to borrow millions of dollars to negotiate these agreements. And then on a whim, when somebody's got a bee in their bonnet, they can walk away from the process and kill it. That is fundamentally wrong."