Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed a new aboriginal affairs minister in a small cabinet shuffle Friday, a week after John Duncan’s surprise decision to leave the portfolio.

Bernard Valcourt will move from his dual portfolios as the associate minister of national defence and the minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to take on aboriginal affairs.

Valcourt is stepping into his new role amid heightened tensions between the federal government and First Nations leaders. Supporters of the Idle No More movement have been staging protests and blockades across the country, demanding that Ottawa address long-standing land treaty issues and poor conditions in First Nations communities.

Duncan resigned from cabinet last Friday over what he called an “inappropriate” decision to write a character letter to a tax court on behalf of a constituent in 2011.

In the months leading up to his departure, Duncan faced heavy criticism for his handling of the aboriginal file.

Don Martin, host of CTV’s Power Play, said Friday that Valcourt is an “an interesting choice” for aboriginal affairs minister. Many observers believed that Heritage Minister James Moore, who briefly took over the portfolio after Duncan’s resignation, would be tapped for the job.

After holding down junior positions, Valcourt is “going to go to the frontbench and be given the big headache of this very contentious portfolio,” Martin said.

Valcourt, now 61, was a rising star in Brian Mulroney’s government in the 1980s until he was charged with drunk driving following a motorcycle crash. He lost an eye in the accident that also cost him his job as minister of consumer and corporate affairs.

Valcourt later returned to cabinet as fisheries minister, but lost his seat in the 1993 federal election. 

He returned to federal politics in 2011 after a stint as leader of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party.

In other cabinet shuffle news:

Gail Shea will take over Valcourt's portfolio as the minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, in addition to her current position as minister of national revenue.

B.C. MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay will take on the associate minister of defence portfolio -- a junior role in support of Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Steven Blaney, minister of veteran's affairs, will assume responsibility for La Francophonie.

With files from The Canadian Press