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Opinion The cabinet shuffle says little about Jody Wilson-Raybould – and plenty about the government

Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, is sworn in as Veterans Affairs Minister at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle has been accompanied by the usual flurry of commentary and speculation, most of it surrounding the bizarre and incoherent removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould as the minister of Justice. Looking back over the past three years, one can find little reason why Ms. Wilson-Raybould would be part of a 12th-hour shuffle ahead of the election. She appears, as reflected in Angus Reid’s December, 2018, assessment of cabinet performance, to be one of the more capable and popular ministers in the government. The public pretext for the shuffle – the retirement of Scott Brison – has little to do with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. There are dozens of ways to fill that gap that would have made more political and policy sense then moving her out of the Justice portfolio.

Of course, Ms. Wilson-Raybould is also unique: She was Canada’s first Indigenous minister of Justice, and has a background as an accomplished Indigenous lawyer and leader. As the Prime Minister is fond of saying, “No relationship is more important” than the one Canada shares with Indigenous peoples; reconciliation is a national priority, he says, and the justice system is at the core of transforming these relations.

So why move her?

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This is where the story gets disturbing. Her demotion from the vital portfolio has been accompanied by insider whispers, based on poisonous stereotypes that Indigenous peoples, and women in particular, face every day: that she was angry, difficult and uncompromising. “Some who spoke on background said she could be dismissive and quick to leap to confrontation when a more constructive approach to policy differences might have been employed," CBC News reported. This has been accompanied by quiet suggestions and innuendos that maybe she is really not that competent, and not as capable as her colleagues: " … it had become an open secret on Parliament Hill that at least in the eye of her political masters but also in the many quarters of the legal community her performance had not lived to the advance billing,” the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert wrote. In this, one finds reflections of many ugly notions that we’re still confronting today: that Indigenous peoples are not as capable, or not as responsible for the achievements and success that they have. That somehow the marginalization of Indigenous peoples, and in particular women, can be justified. And that Indigenous peoples somehow are not ready to lead and govern in today’s world.

Then, of course, there is the reality. We have worked with Ms. Wilson-Raybould for years when she was an Indigenous leader in British Columbia. She is, and has always been, determined, collaborative and hard-working. She was never hard to work with; she had high expectations of herself and others, because she was focused on seeing real change, especially in the work of reconciliation. Importantly, she was always focused on pursuing a principled, systematic approach to reconciliation, advancing the work of self-determination and self-government, and moving beyond the Indian Act. This is why she was elected twice to be Regional Chief of B.C., and has been influential in the work of advocating for Indigenous peoples across the country.

So the cabinet shuffle doesn’t say much about Ms. Wilson-Raybould – it speaks to the state of the government, its priorities, and how it functions.

Over the past number of months, Ms. Wilson-Raybould gave a series of speeches bluntly calling out the government’s failures on the reconciliation front – a timely recognition that the current gap between the Trudeau government’s rhetoric on relations of Indigenous peoples and the reality of their actions was too great.

“The path of justice and equality is not advanced or achieved through half-measures, good intentions or lofty rhetoric," she said in Saskatoon in a September speech. "And it is certainly not achieved through obfuscation or confusion about what we mean when we speak. Hard choices, innovative actions, transformations in laws and policies, new understandings and attitudes, new patterns of behaviour – this is what is needed.” In another speech in October, Ms. Wilson-Raybould seemed to presage where this was all heading: “Indeed, in my own experience serving as the first Indigenous person to be Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, I have unfortunately had it reinforced that when addressing Indigenous issues, no matter what table one sits around, or in what position, or with what title and appearance of influence and power, the experience of marginalization can still carry with you.”

By moving her from the high-profile role, the government is reinforcing that the comfortable status quo trumps the real work of reconciliation – that half-measures and rhetoric can suffice over real change. The racial and gender stereotypes being used to diminish her only prove that the status quo has already won, yet again. Mr. Trudeau’s professed most important relationship remains one grounded in oppression, colonialism and paternalism – and the events of the past few days demonstrate that.

Merle Alexander is a member of Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation and principal at Miller Titerle + Company, practising Indigenous resource and intergovernmental law. Leah George-Wilson is a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and a practising lawyer at Miller Titerle + Co. in Vancouver. Naiomi Metallic is a Mìgmaq lawyer and holds the Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is a Cree lawyer who is senior counsel with Woodward and Co., a professor of law at the Peter Allard School of Law, and the director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia. Val Napolean is a member of the Saulteau First Nation, a professor of law at the University of Victoria, and the Law Foundation Chair of Aboriginal Justice and Governance. Doug White is a lawyer, councillor of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at Vancouver Island University.

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