Canada’s crisis is about Indigenous rights. It’s about pipelines and promises. It’s about the future
On Thursday morning the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the memory and work of his late father, the 15th Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Its funny how history repeats itself, although Young Trudeau would have us to believe otherwise.
Young Trudeau cited his father’s platform of the “Just Society.” That very policy ignited one of the first major Indigenous movements in Canada to resist federal policy. Out of that document came the infamous white paper policy that was developed by another former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. The late Alberta Cree leader and philosopher, Harold Cardinal, denounced that policy and wrote a book as rebuttal. Cardinal’s book, The Unjust Society condemned the Liberal Party platform to abolish aboriginal rights and to assimilate us into mainstream society.
Some critics, artists and writers are asking today, what is the difference between the assimilation policies of 1969 and the reconciliation agenda of today? Fifty years have passed and the issues of Indigenous people remain a thorn in the side of any Canadian government. The assimilation agenda never really went away and quite surprisingly neither have the issues of Indigenous rights. We resist the government’s attempts to make us into good little Canadians. What has emerged is a war of words and a clash of perspectives.
The political crisis rocking the Canadian ruling class is not about the SNC-Lavalin criminal trial and deferred prosecutions. This crisis is about Indigenous rights and relationships. It is about truth and reconciliation. Colonialism is swirling around these events like an unwanted ghost.
It has been an interesting month for political pundits and Indigenous people furious with the way a standing government has treated a KwaKwaka’wakw matriarch. What we have witnessed is a democratic government in total disarray, spinning the truth and dodging questions with platitudes and niceties.
Gerry Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, appeared before the Canadian Justice Committee Wednesday to give his version of the events, as best as he remembers, about the current political crisis rocking the nation. It was blatant brinksmanship, almost like a political campaign stop, shaking hands and sporting a confident smile, accenting nearly every remark. I saw it as a smirk, a flipped finger at the rest of us in the outside world wanting to hear the truth. Butts knew everyone by first names and wanted the world to know that.
The Canadian Justice Committee is dominated by Trudeau Liberals. They set the agenda and they get to ask more questions than the rest of the committee. So, when it came to the Liberals, their questions were either pollyannaish, or a veiled attempt to find evidence for the prime minister’s contention that he has done nothing illegal or wrong.
Clearly the rest of us know that the Liberal Party apparatus is walking on ice so thin that one may well crash through frozen waters soon enough.
Butts rebuttal was a highly anticipated event. It was his turn to counter the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general.
Wilson-Raybould’s previous testimony accused Butts of exercising pressure on the former minister to give a Quebec firm, SNC-Lavalin, leniency in a criminal trial for bribery. He characterised her evidence in a very disturbing way. He insinuated that she had a different version of events. He insisted he did nothing wrong. She was a good friend, he claimed, that her decision came as a shock to him.
Basically, Gerry Butts called Jody Wilson-Raybould a liar.
The political pundits applauded, saying he was very cordial and cooperative. The opposition parties were all aghast. But Butts was meek compared to what came next. Michael Wernick, still shackled by the image of an Indian Agent was to deliver a performance that wreaked of a pit bull in a fighting ring, rather than a faceless public servant.
In an unbelievably arrogant and pugnacious second appearance, The Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, delivered a fiery defense of his first appearance more than a week ago at this committee. Wernick was practically hyperventilating as he began his new testimony. He immediately tabled a binder’s worth of emails and social media documents claiming he was experienced hatred and social media bullying. One of the opposition members attempted to intervene when Murray Rankin asked about the appropriateness of social media in this investigation. He was ignored by the chair of the Liberal dominated committee. When the committee split up for the day, Rankin and other opposition members harrumphed: “This committee is not the place for justice.”
As the witnesses drew from memory, notes, emails, and text messages, many perspectives are being exposed and sadly all of them, except for the central person in this political drama, are coming from white male privilege. The one other witness in the televised Justice Committee meetings, Deputy Minister Nathalie Drouin, was the senior bureaucrat for Justice. Her testimony was matter of fact and inoffensive. But the other two men of privilege are the principle reason we are at a crossroads over reconciliation and together they may push the Trudeau agenda over the edge of reason into the abyss of uncertainty.
Is it part of the Canadian experience that we may never see justice for Indigenous people and that all of the pronunciations for reconciliation have never been sincere?
There is a key bit of information trying to edge itself out at these Justice meetings and for the free press to pick up on. But it is the elephant in the room and, so far, few journalists and pundits have picked it up.
In Wilson-Raybould’s testimony one of the most notable dates is October 17. I believe it was the last day that she met in person with the prime minister and the Wernick. The disputed SNC-Lavalin affair was but a small part of their agenda. This is the moment when the former attorney general informed the prime minister that she would not pursue the matter further. What I have been curious about, however, was the main reason of their meeting: The Indigenous file.
Wernick has testified about what should be of interest to the Justice committee. The fiery response from Murray Rankin of the New Democratic Party, was that’s not relevant here. Ah! But it is relevant here. It should be relevant because it may be at the crux of the strategy of the Liberal party and the prime minister’s office to dismantle Jody Wilson Raybould’s unsullied reputation. She holds a precious and valuable name in her First Nations customs. But my sources tell me that this is where the support for Wilson Raybould began to fracture and the challenges members of Cabinet began.
Wilson-Raybould hails from a proud and ancient culture with roots that predate European arrival on the continent. She holds the name Puglaas, truth speaker. She was reared in the bighouse traditions of the KwaKwaka’wakw. Their system of government has often been called potlatch laws and it was the very act of potlatching that was outlawed by the Canadian Government for 67 years. The Indian Act, still in existence, was home to the potlatch prohibition. It remains the home of many oppressive laws that prevent Indigenous nations from prospering and participating in our own robust economies. Wilson-Raybould went to Ottawa with a mission to reset this one-sided and oppressive relationship. She knew that Canada could do better.
While Wilson-Raybould was on a government trip to Australia in September 2018 news reached her about the Indigenous file. The news must have been distressing enough because she immediately texted her staff to get a meeting with the prime minister as soon as possible. Early in the year the prime minister’s office split split up the multi-named department responsible for Indigenous Affairs.
The department was known as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1966 to 2017, but the colonizing government has had an Indian department since 1755. The department has changed its name twice since 2017. Yet, the governing legislation is still the Indian Act. The prime minister has repeatedly stated that the Indigenous file is his most important. But Wilson-Raybould has long suspected the opposite to be true. It has to be the main reason she resigned.
When the government split the Indigenous department it said that efficiency was the key reason. They divided the agency by functions and set up a new department called Crown Indigenous Relations. It was supposed to be the promise for the future. It was supposed to be guided by the UNDRIP principals.
Then something weird happened.
At the end of May 2018, the prime minister announced the purchase, by the Canadian government, of the troubled and beleaguered Trans Mountain Pipeline. It paid a whopping $4.5 billion to an international company that was going nowhere and because the resource company was stymied by regulatory failures. Jobs, it was said, were at stake. The pipeline company was being sued by First Nations and any approvals was damned by the lack of proper consultation with Indigenous people.
The prime minister’s purchase mystified and angered both opposition politicians and Indigenous people.
When asked by a reporter about why the purchase was so urgent, Trudeau’s glib response said it all, “It was the only pipeline for sale.”
Politicians operate on the mantra of job creation. To build an economic engine and to keep it humming is the purpose of all governments.
Trudeau holds that mantle and today he made no apologies for the current political crisis, showing no contrition, even if it meant he had to throw his former best friend under the bus.
And, anyway, Trudeau blames the entire crisis as an erosion of trust and a breakdown in communications. Gerry Butts, as it turns out, is the fall guy.
One of the curious issues that were raised in the testimony of the last few days is the disconnect that continues to exist at the highest levels of Canada’s ruling class.
The straw that broke Jody Wilson Raybould’s back was when the prime minister reassigned her to the lesser portfolio of Veterans Affairs. Reaction from Indigenous people was swift and filled with condemnation. The move was seen as a demotion.
What has emerged in the last few days, however, speaks volumes to how deep the chasm between Indigenous and white Canadians. It was revealed that the prime minister offered Wilson-Raybould the ministry of Indigenous Crown Relations.
Initial reaction from press and pundits was, why would she NOT take the job of Indigenous Crown Relations?
Feigning surprise to this, Butts revealed that if he had thought more about the issues, he would have advised the prime minister differently. Wilson-Raybould’s response was immediate. She did not want the job of administering Canada’s top Indigenous file because she had spent her life fighting the Indian Act.
When Justin Trudeau invoked his father’s legacy today all that I could think about was the First ministers Conference in 1983-1987. I was a rookie TV producer and before each day’s business began, First Nations lit a sacred pipe. The Elder Trudeau became impatient and perturbed by this and he interrupted asking: “Are you going to pray every day?” The national chief replied, yes. The chairman then intervened and said, “then everyone should say their own prayers in their own way.”
Pierre Trudeau wanted to gain the upper hand, to be fair, on behalf of his electorate. The Indigenous people began each day with a prayer, not for show, but as a gesture of respect for this great land where we all make our living. The lighting of the pipe is an acknowledgement that we are inferior to the Great Spirit and that we give thanks daily for the land upon which we survive. Trudeau did not understand or appreciate this. We are supposed to be good Catholics: Aren’t we?
The provincial government premiers that were in that meeting all laughed. Quebec’s late premier got the biggest laugh from the crowd as he inhaled the sacred smoke and he exhaled through both nostrils, as though he was taking in one of his Gitane cigarettes.
As Indigenous people we all feel a collective grief for the dispossession of our traditional lands, loss of language and culture. We may never see the return of our abundant natural resources, soon to be unrecognizable because of climate change. Pipelines will soon dot the landscape where once antelope, deer, caribou, moose and bears roamed freely. And of course, common Canadians will be right there, taking the jobs that our government is so keen on preserving.
In October Canadians return to the election polls to decide upon the next government. The 2019 campaign is already in full swing, and some might say it never really ended. Whether Jody Wilson-Raybould and Justin Trudeau can make up before October is hard to predict. I would say not likely. He may appoint some of the Metis members of parliament to key positions. He may render the odd apology, create the image of new funding and improved relations. But that won’t be enough. It’s the coming of a new Just Society.
Jeff Bear is a filmmaker and artist living on Haida Gwaii, Canada.