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Opinion With Wilson-Raybould demotion, Trudeau gets his priorities wrong

It would not be an insult to anyone to suggest the Veterans Affairs portfolio is simply not comparable in scope or complexity to that of the Justice minister.

So, while Jody Wilson-Raybould inherits a “deep and awesome” responsibility – as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted after appointing her to the Veterans Affairs post on Monday – the move from her perch as Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister is not a lateral one.

Her demotion, and the appointment of Seamus O’Regan as Indigenous Services minister, speak volumes about how this Prime Minister’s Office grades performance. It’s the difference between ministers good at virtue-signalling on Twitter and those who prioritize the “deep and awesome” responsibilities of their jobs.

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It’s true that Monday’s cabinet shuffle also involved Jane Philpott’s promotion from Indigenous Services, where by all accounts she was accomplishing much, to the critical and demanding Treasury Board post. But Ms. Philpott is one of those rare individuals capable of acing the political aspects of her job without losing sight of what matters.

The mandate letter Mr. Trudeau handed to Ms. Wilson-Raybould when he appointed her to the Justice portfolio in 2015 was daunting. And although she was sometimes criticized for moving too slowly to implement criminal-justice reforms and appoint judges, what she achieved in three years remains nothing short of a miracle.

Drafting legislation to regulate medical aid in dying (following a Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down the Criminal Code ban) and overseeing the legalization of marijuana were in themselves gargantuan tasks. Ms. Wilson-Raybould could not be blamed for parliamentary hold-ups in passing legislation. She upheld her end of the bargain with aplomb.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould was accused of dragging her feet on promises to roll back mandatory minimum sentences and victim surcharges – getting upstaged by the courts, which ended striking down many Conservative-era measures before she got around to repealing them. In her defence, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s methodical approach may have saved her government from potential grief had she moved too fast.

On the one file where she was accused by defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors alike of reacting in a knee-jerk fashion – in moving to ban peremptory challenges following the 2018 acquittal, by an all-white jury, of a Saskatchewan farmer in the shooting death of an Indigenous man – she was acting on orders from her boss himself, who made an emotional speech in the House of Commons after the case made headlines.

“Given the amount of legislation she actually introduced and given the priorities of this Liberal government, it is kind of hard to see, from a political perspective, where she went wrong,” said Ottawa criminal lawyer Ian Carter.

The suggestion being raised in government circles that Ms. Wilson-Raybould could be difficult at times betrays the short-sightedness of the PMO. Sometimes, the most difficult ministers save your bacon when it really matters, not the cheerleaders who chant your awesomeness.

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Indeed, you could argue that it’s precisely the minister of justice’s job to be difficult. As Ms. Wilson-Raybould pointed out in a telling statement Monday, her role involved providing legal advice to the cabinet. What client wants their own lawyer to tell them what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear?

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s twin role as attorney-general also required her to stand above politics. The A-G, she said, “must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s successor as Justice Minister, former McGill University law professor David Lametti, certainly comes to the job with an impressive résumé. But his background in corporate and intellectual-property law does not necessarily jibe with the priorities of criminal-justice reform he must accomplish.

Having voted against his own government’s medical aid in dying legislation, Mr. Lametti’s appointment may signal that Mr. Trudeau is preparing to repeal the restriction that limits the procedure to those whose death is reasonably foreseeable. The limits appear to be highly unpopular in Quebec, where the law is currently being challenged in court. On Tuesday, the Barreau du Québec and Collège des Médecins, which oppose the restriction, called on the provincial government to refer the law to the Quebec Court of Appeal to determine its constitutionality.

Indeed, much of the chatter about the fluently bilingual Mr. Lametti’s appointment involves his ability to make the Liberals’ case on a multitude of files in Quebec, a province that is critical to Mr. Trudeau’s re-election chances and whose current ministers are seen as lacking clout in cabinet.

It’s just too bad his promotion has come at Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s expense. She was doing a fine job, and her demotion sends exactly the wrong signal.

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