Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he believed Jody Wilson-Raybould would have been a great fit as the minister of Indigenous Services even though his top bureaucrat recently said it was public knowledge that she did not want the job of administering the Indian Act.
Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick told the justice committee of the House on Feb. 21 that it was common knowledge in Ottawa that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was not interested in Indigenous Services. But on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, testified that he was surprised when Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused to be shuffled to Indigenous Services. And on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said he had believed she would be an excellent fit for the job.
The removal of Ms. Wilson-Raybould from the position of attorney-general and minister of justice on Jan. 14 is a key moment in the SNC-Lavalin affair. In her testimony to MPs last week, Canada’s first Indigenous minister of justice said she felt she was being removed from the position because of her refusal to order the federal director of prosecutions to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the company.
Mr. Trudeau and his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, have both said the January shuffle was forced upon them by the resignation of Scott Brison as president of the treasury board, adding that the move was not designed to punish Ms. Wilson-Raybould for her unflinching position on SNC-Lavalin.
In the end, Mr. Trudeau appointed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs, shuffling Seamus O’Regan from that position and into Indigenous Services. Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet on Feb. 12.
Mr. Butts described a three-stage decision leading to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s move to Veterans Affairs.
First, Mr. Brison’s resignation. Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott was the logical replacement, he said, leaving a vacancy. The result, he testified, was the decision to offer Indigenous Services to Ms. Wilson-Raybould to demonstrate the government’s continuing commitment to reconciliation. But on Jan. 7, the B.C. MP refused the portfolio on philosophical grounds. And finally, Mr. Butts said, he advised Mr. Trudeau that Ms. Wilson-Raybould must be shifted from Justice or the Prime Minister would risk losing control over the composition of cabinet.
Before entering politics, and during her time as justice minister, Ms. Wilson-Raybould frequently denounced the Indian Act, saying she was looking forward to the day the legislation would no longer be in place.
In his testimony, Mr. Wernick said he was aware that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would never accept an Indigenous portfolio.
“She did not ever want to be one of the Indigenous affairs ministers," Mr. Wernick said. "She made that very clear. She did not want to be the Indigenous Services minister, or the [Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs] minister and be seen as the Indian agent for her own people. She’s made that clear in public.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould told The Toronto Star in 2015 that she was happy to go to justice instead of facing unrealistic expectations at Indigenous and North Affairs, as the department was called at that time.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau was asked why he did not leave Ms. Wilson-Raybould at Justice if he knew she would not want to go to Indigenous Services. He answered that he believed that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s background as an aboriginal leader would have sent a strong signal about his government’s efforts toward reconciliation with First Nations.
“These were important things that I thought she would be excellent at and it would be very good to indicate just how much this issue continued to matter to our government,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.
During his testimony, Mr. Butts said he told Mr. Trudeau that after Ms. Wilson-Raybould turned down Indigenous Services, he would risk risk losing control of cabinet if he did not move her. “My advice was that the Prime Minister should not set the precedent that a cabinet minister could refuse a new position and therefore remain in one position for the life of the government,” Mr. Butts testified.
Veteran Liberal Eddie Goldenberg, who served as chief of staff to prime minister Jean Chrétien, said he could not recall a minister refusing a portfolio. “I have seen cases where before a shuffle, ministers have had discussions with a prime minister about their preferences,” he said. “But once the prime minister has made up his mind, I have never seen what Mr. Butts described as happened in the case of Ms. Wilson-Raybould.”
In her testimony last week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould briefly touched on the events surrounding the shuffle, which started with a conversation with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Butts and PMO chief of staff Katie Telford on Jan. 7.
“I was concerned that I was being shuffled out of the role of minister of justice and attorney-general possibly because of a decision I would not take on SNC and the DPA. I raised those concerns with the Prime Minister and with Gerry Butts…. They denied that,” she testified.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that Mr. Butts reacted defensively when she mentioned her concerns in a subsequent conversation.
“I specifically said that I know this has to do with SNC and a decision that I wouldn’t take, to which he said: ‘Are you questioning the integrity of the Prime Minister?’ I didn’t say anything to that,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the committee.
With reports from Stephanie Chambers and Rick Cash