Emily Riddle is nehiyaw from the Alexander First Nation in Treaty Six. She is a policy analyst who works in the field of First Nations education and sits on the board of advisers for the Yellowhead Institute, based in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University.
To be an Indigenous woman in this country is to intimately understand both interpersonal and systemic gaslighting. Gaslighters psychologically manipulate others in order to get us to question our own reality. The Trudeau government’s treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould constitutes exactly that: the narrative from the PMO that, although she felt inappropriate pressured to change her mind, no such thing occurred.
Gaslighting too, more broadly, exists in Canada’s ongoing denial of the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples through the administration of the Indian Act and other legislation and policies. Any Indigenous woman who questions anyone who demeans her or a system that perpetuates violence against her is bound to be called difficult.
I still question why a First Nations person would choose to serve as Canada’s attorney-general, to defend a colonial legal system that upholds the Doctrine of Discovery and incarcerates a disproportionate number of Indigenous people. Perhaps I come from a generation that is more cynical than Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s; she represents faith in creating change from within.
Justin Trudeau, apparently, wanted to be the one prime minister Indigenous people would praise, claiming that “no relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.” Gerald Butts, his former principal secretary, helped carefully construct a platform promising Indigenous peoples a “nation-to-nation relationship.” Just like electoral reform, this is something the current government has not delivered.
Thursday morning, the Prime Minister stated that he should have been aware of an “erosion of trust” between his office and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. When asked if he would be apologizing this week, he changed the subject to mention that he was headed to Iqaluit to apologize to the Inuit for their widespread mistreatment during the mid-century tuberculosis epidemic. (Fittingly, his plane was diverted and the apology postponed.)
A day earlier, Mr. Butts’s testimony to the House of Commons justice council revealed, to me, that women who uphold their principles are apparently still seen as difficult – even in a supposedly feminist caucus. Mr. Butts denied that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin, which has been accused of unscrupulous practices in relation to the company’s dealings in Libya, including, allegedly, $48-million in bribes and $130-million in fraud.
Despite Mr. Butts stating that he was not there to quarrel with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, nor “say a single negative word about her personally,” he effectively communicated that her testimony was not truthful, denying that she was put under pressure to offer a delayed prosecution.
Commenting on the cabinet resignations of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, Shelia Copps, former deputy prime minister, claimed that both women were not team players. Of course, Jody Wilson-Raybould did not become the regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations or the attorney-general without knowing how to work with other people. The trope of the unco-operative Indigenous woman is a familiar one.
Throughout this process, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has simply asked for the government to be accountable within the current structure. My mother’s generation could not imagine that a First Nations woman who is knowledgeable in the laws of her own nation would be the one asking a Prime Minister to uphold his own laws.
According to Mr. Butts, Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused an appointment to Minister of Indigenous Services, saying that she had “spent her life opposed to the Indian Act and couldn’t be in charge of programs administered under its authority.” He admitted that he should have known that she may feel this way. To be clear: Appointing Ms. Wilson-Raybould to the position of Minister of Indigenous Services would have been more about symbolism than the structural change needed to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples in this country.
So far, the Liberals have denied Ms. Wilson-Raybould the opportunity to provide additional testimony to the justice committee, but this is not the last we will hear from her, who according to her father “for some misguided reason” knew as a child she wanted to become a lawyer and prime minister.
This likely won’t result in the resignation of Mr. Trudeau, but the chances of the Conservative government winning in 2019 are now increased; I expect even less from the CPC in improving the lives of Indigenous peoples in this country.
To use the words of Mr. Butts, “This, to me, is the saddest part of the story.”