Shuffling towards the election

The announcement last week by Liberal MP Scott Brison that he would not seek re-election in the fall and so would resign from his Cabinet position as President of the Treasury Board of Canada led to a significant Cabinet shuffle by Prime Minister Trudeau.

Among those moved was (former) Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is now the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.

While Wilson-Raybould has put a good face on her move, it is seen by some as a demotion and by others as a slap in the face to Canada’s commitment to reconciliation.

Speaking truth to power

Wilson-Raybould issued a lengthy statement after the PM’s announcement, which is unusual in itself. As could have been expected, she said that it is an honour for her to be in a position to serve and support Canada’s veterans.

But she also made a point of noting that, while she had received many questions and inquiries about why she was moved, she will not be commenting on this because “in our system, decisions regarding the appointment of Cabinet Ministers are the prerogative of the Prime Minister,” which might seem to indicate that she is less than delighted to be leaving the portfolio she has held since Trudeau formed his first Cabinet.

I remember that day – November 4, 2015 – and the hope so many of us felt to see an Indigenous woman appointed to the position of Justice Minister. It was an indication, we thought, that the new government would be true to its campaign promises to move ahead on reconciliation, to address the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and to, as the mandate letter from the Prime Minister set out, achieve broad, progressive movement in the area of justice in this country.

Reconciliation challenges

Wilson-Raybould notes in her statement that there have been significant challenges in improving the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada. She says that one of her main motivations in seeking public office was to see “the work of reconciliation accelerate and advance in real and tangible ways.” But, while she acknowledges that the government has taken some important steps, “the necessary shifts have not yet been fully achieved.”

She does not mince words in setting out the issues:

“The foundation for moving forward is understanding that the dire social and economic realities that Indigenous peoples continue to face including lack of clean drinking water, over representation in the criminal justice system, inadequate housing, high rates of poverty, and violence against Indigenous women and girls – are directly linked to legislative and policy regimes that have disempowered and divided Indigenous peoples, eroded their systems of governance, laws and responsibilities, harmed their economies, and denied their basic rights and systems.

Lower priority?

A number of Indigenous advocates see Wilson-Raybould’s move out of Justice as an indication that reconciliation is dropping in priority for Trudeau. They also note that, in recent months, she has been signalling her concerns about the lack of action on Indigenous issues.

Hayden King, Executive Director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University commented:

“Having Jody Wilson-Raybould out of the Attorney General’s office when she was pushing so much on a more progressive approach on Indigenous justice issues and litigation is an indication that the Trudeau Liberals are not prioritizing that relationship heading into the election.”

This move comes at a sensitive time in terms of Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples, following on the heels of the recent raid on the Wet’suwet’en encampment, which was blockading work on the Coastal Gas Link natural gas pipeline project.

What lies ahead?

Especially when coupled with the move of Jane Philpott, who previously headed the Indigenous Services portfolio and, along with Wilson-Raybould, was trusted by many Indigenous leaders, to President of Treasury Board, it is easy to have concerns about where this government is headed with respect to reconciliation.

Later this month, the government is expected to table legislation to move towards Indigenous jurisdiction over the delivery of child welfare systems across the country. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Director of the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a former judge and provincial children’s advocate, sees this legislation as:

“one of the most important pieces of legislation for Indigenous people in a generation. They have to get it right.”

Neither David Lametti, newly installed as Minister of Justice and Attorney General, nor Seamus O’Regan, Philpott’s replacement at Indigenous Services, and who now carry the responsibility for leading this legislation, has a track record with Indigenous peoples.

It is hard not to agree with Cheryl Casimer, a member of B.C.’s First Nations Summit Task Force, who sees these two departures as an indication that Trudeau is no longer committed to reforging Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples:

“There are so many things that are happening that are giving rise to questions . . . as to whether those words ring hollow, whether his promises ring hollow, because that’s what it’s starting to look like.”

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