Trudeau’s Commitment to Indigenous Groups Tested by Minister’s Resignation
TORONTO — For a Canadian prime minister who has tied his legacy to improving the state of Indigenous people in the country, the Valentine’s Day photo would seem a picture-perfect re-election campaign poster: Justin Trudeau’s face cupped in the hands of his justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould was a powerful regional chief of First Nations on Canada’s west coast, an advocate for Indigenous rights and a lawyer. The photo of her and Mr. Trudeau was confirmation that a new postcolonial Canada was being built.
A year later, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has resigned from Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, after being moved from the post of justice minister to minister of veteran’s affairs, widely considered less influential. And now Mr. Trudeau is under attack from Indigenous groups, who say her treatment raises questions about his commitment to righting the wrongs of the past.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation came a week after a Canadian national newspaper reported, on anonymous sourcing, that either Mr. Trudeau or his staff had pressured her to back off the corruption and bribery prosecution of a prominent, Montreal-based engineering company, SNC-Lavalin.
That accusation is now being investigated by a federal ethics commissioner.
The prime minister, who said he was baffled by Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, flatly denies that he tried to influence the case. But Indigenous leaders across the country view her departure from his cabinet as a condemnation.
“Is this what the prime minister really thinks about reconciliation?” said Marlene Poitras, the Alberta regional chief for the country’s largest Indigenous organization. “I am disillusioned and saddened by this whole thing. I thought we were making progress. This makes me question everything.”
Northern Manitoba’s former grand chief, Sheila North, said that despite Mr. Trudeau’s public statements about reconciliation, what she said was the disrespectful treatment of the country’s most powerful indigenous woman reveals a sickening colonial paternalism that has afflicted the country since it was formed 150 years ago.
“This shows the real attitudes, the real thinking, the government has for Indigenous people,” Ms. North said. “They thought they could just tell Jody Wilson-Raybould what to do and pressure her into compromising her principals. When push comes to shove, this government doesn’t care about what Indigenous people care about, say or think.”
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More than any prime minister in Canada’s history, Mr. Trudeau has made it his mission to improve the fortunes of the country’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit citizens, who in many cases live in areas with dirty water, shabby overcrowded homes, unequipped health centers and underfunded schools.
In general, Indigenous people in Canada are poorer, sicker and less educated than other Canadians, as well as overpoliced and overrepresented in the country’s jails. And they have withstood a long history of Canadian efforts to stamp out their cultures.
During his election campaign in 2015, Mr. Trudeau promised big changes, from improving infrastructure and education to fashioning new “nation to nation” relationships with the country’s hundreds of Indigenous groups, which make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population.
The announcement shortly after his election that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would be the country’s powerful attorney general and justice minister — overseeing the country’s jails and colonial laws — at the time confirmed to many that this was more than words.
Her reputation as a hard-working, intelligent and strong-willed fighter further heightened expectations of the influence she would bring to the Trudeau government.
“It brought a lot of hope to First Nations leadership,” said Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which represents more than 100 first nations on Canada’s west coast. “I have never met someone that works so hard and has such huge integrity and dignity.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who did not respond to requests for an interview, offered no public reason for resigning, but uncharacteristically signed her open resignation letter with Puglass, her name in her native Kwak’wala language. It means “a woman born to noble people.”
Her father, Bill Wilson, is a powerful chief and political leader from Vancouver Island who successfully negotiated in the early 1980s with then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the current prime minister’s father, for Indigenous rights to be included in the country’s constitution.
He told the prime minister his two daughters were gunning to be prime minister.
In 2000, Ms. Wilson-Raybould followed her father’s footsteps into law and became a crown attorney in Vancouver’s gritty downtown east side, where Indigenous women were regularly disappearing, some into the hands of serial killer Robert Pickton, with little police response.
She then worked for the British Columbia Treaty Commission, advising on treaty negotiations with Indigenous groups.
In 2009, Ms. Wilson-Raybould became the province’s regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, the largest lobby group for First Nations people in the country, representing 634 reserves.
She entered politics as a Liberal after a disappointing meeting with the country’s former Conservative prime minister that revealed “our solutions weren’t being listened to,” she told the Canadian Press news service in 2015.
She was largely considered an effective minister, so many in the country were surprised last month when the prime minister announced in a cabinet shuffle that she was becoming minister of veteran’s affairs.
In a public letter, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she accepted the new job and would still push for “the fundamental shifts in relations with Indigenous peoples that are required.”
Her father told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the change in her position was a “slap in the face” for all Indigenous people across Canada.
Last weekend, an article circulated on many Canadian news sites raised the theory, citing unnamed Liberal “insiders,” that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted because she was difficult, openly hostile, self-centered, untrustworthy and increasingly, “a thorn in the side of cabinet.”
Incensed, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs demanded an apology, calling the characterizations “colonial-era, sexist stereotypes” of indigenous women.
Failing that, their letter said, the government’s hypocrisy would be “laid bare for all Canadians to see.”
“Darn right she is demanding,” said Ken Coates, a research chairman at the University of Saskatchewan who studies Indigenous rights and economic development.
“She is trying to bring about a transformative change in the Canadian political system,” he said. “This is rebuilding the foundation of confederation to include Indigenous people in a significant way.”
He added, “I don’t think people in Canada realize how devastating this is.”
Perry Bellegarde, the president of the Assembly of First Nations, pointed out that the government has only four months to implement its election promises — including two important new laws on Indigenous languages and child welfare — before it closes for summer and heads into a re-election campaign.
“I wish her all the best but she made her decision,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and I don’t need a distraction.”