The prime minister’s attempt to move Jody Wilson-Raybould to the Indigenous Services portfolio was a ‘deeply humiliating’ proposal and shows a lack of understanding and disconnect from First Nations’ world view, say Indigenous leaders and analysts.
Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, testified before the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday that the former cabinet minister was moved to Veterans Affairs from Justice after refusing to take on the Indigenous Services portfolio, and that the shuffle had nothing to do with her refusal to intervene on the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution.
It was concern over maintaining the reconciliation momentum that led Trudeau to move Wilson-Raybould from Justice to Indigenous Services, said Butts.
Jane Philpott, who was an admired Indigenous Services minister, had to be moved to Treasury Board to replace the outgoing Scott Brison, and, in Trudeau’s mind, Wilson-Raybould was the perfect fit to replace her, said Butts.
“[Trudeau] wanted a person in Indigenous Services who would send a strong signal that the work would keep going at the same pace, and that the file would have the same personal prominence for him,” he said.
But it was something Wilson-Raybould just couldn’t accept.
“She said she had spent her life opposed to the Indian Act and couldn’t be in charge of the programs administered under its authority,” said Butts.
Trudeau then moved Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs because he couldn’t allow Wilson-Raybould to set a precedent by staying in her existing portfolio after refusing a move, said Butts.
Butts said that, in hindsight, he should have expected her decision to reject the move to Indigenous Services.
Indian Act the ‘most offensive and racist legislation’
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, said offering Wilson-Raybould the Indigenous Services portfolio was inappropriate.
Over its 140 years, the Indian Act has been used to force children to attend residential schools, outlaw religious practices and forbid First Nations people from leaving reserves without a permit.
“Any person that had any kind of understanding, even a basic understanding of Indigenous relations with the Crown, would know that the most offensive and indeed racist legislation on the books is the Indian Act,” she said.
“Asking her to administer the Indian Act is not only inappropriate, it is deeply humiliating.”
Turpel-Lafond said the Indian Act banned Wilson-Raybould people’s potlatches and forbade women from voting and serving on their band councils. The legislation continues to discriminate against women on the issue of passing on status to descendants, she said.
“It would be akin to asking Nelson Mandela to administer apartheid.”
Splitting of Indigenous Affairs
Indigenous Services was created in 2017 when the Trudeau government split Indigenous Affairs into two departments.
The split moved the rights and lands issue files — modern treaties, self-government — under Crown-Indigenous Relations. Indigenous Services took over programs, services and infrastructure — like child welfare, housing and drinking water.
Essentially, Crown-Indigenous Relations was created to deal primarily with laws, policies and negotiations on moving First Nations out from under the Indian Act, while Indigenous Services was created to manage the Indian Act.
“What he proposed in his abysmal ignorance was ‘Let’s make her the distributor of welfare,'” said Bill Wilson, Wilson-Raybould’s father, and a prominent First Nations leader from British Columbia.
“It appears to me [Trudeau] simply does not have a clear understanding and that it’s all tokenism,” he said.
Trudeau’s failure of foresight and the misguided belief that moving Wilson-Raybould to Indigenous Services would somehow advance the reconciliation agenda reveals his government’s “disconnect” from the First Nations worldview, according to Assembly of First Nations B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee.
Trudeau has been heavy on symbolism and light on substantive structural changes, said Teegee.
“His understanding is that if you put a very facade fix to the problem, it will go away, which isn’t the fact,” he said.
“First Nations have always been fighting for the fundamental issues of sovereignty, rights and Indigenous ways of governing since Confederation.”
Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University, said he sees a sub-narrative embedded in Butts’ testimony, along with Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick’s statements before the committee earlier this month.
“They are, I think, framing Wilson-Raybould’s resistance [to SNC-Lavalin intervention] as being wrapped up in her Indigenous politics,” said King.
“This is a part of narrative that they are trying to package…. I think they are trying to convey to Canadians something here about trouble-making Indigenous people.”