Indigenous values, the rule of law, and a crisis for the Trudeau government
The chapter about Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the governing Liberal Party new era of reconciliation is over. It’s been replaced by a debate about the rule of law -- and Indigenous values.
The story began more than three years ago when Trudeau— as the new prime minister—boasted of a new kind of democratic participation that included First Nations. The new cabinet was representative of gender, region, and included Aboriginal people.
When asked “why?” Trudeau replied, “because it’s 2015.” The chief of the Assembly of Nations even called it a “new era of reconciliation.” Chief Perry Bellegarde told the CBC: “I was very impressed with the opening ceremony, but even more impressed that out of eight aboriginal members of Parliament that were elected, two have made it into cabinet,” said Bellegarde. “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.”
One proof of that relationship was the appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Kwakiutl, as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
The relationship between the Liberals and First Nations was better than it had been under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, but far from perfect. As Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation leader, wrote in The Guardian last year: “The decision by the government of Canada to take over the Trans Mountain pipeline Expansion Project is yet another example of Indigenous rights being ignored in Canada. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised to do things differently than his predecessors. He promised indigenous peoples that our rights would be respected, and he has broken that promise, yet again. He promised us he would put pipeline expansion through a brand-new review, and instead, the government is spending billions of dollars to buy it and, if necessary, complete and operate it over our objections.”
The complaints from First Nations opposed to the pipeline were duly noted and ignored. While the First Nations that supported the development were highlighted by the government. A familiar story, right?
It took another corruption scandal— one that did not involve First Nations—to change the story.
Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, reported a month ago that the prime minister had pressured Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a case involving SNC-Lavalin so that prosecutors would not pursue the case. The Globe reported that she declined. This answered the question about why Wilson-Raybould had been demoted from her post as attorney general. A few days after the story, Wilson-Raybould resigned from the government. And on Monday another cabinet member, Jane Philpott, joined her and resigned because of the “serious concerns” raised in the case.
In testimony before Parliament last week, Wilson-Raybould said she told the prime minister that she had “done my due diligence and had made up my mind on SNC and that I was not going to interfere with the decision” of prosecutors. She said, “The prime minister again cited the potential loss of jobs and SNC moving.”
Business. As. Usual.
She also brought Indigenous values into the discussion. “The history of Crown-Indigenous relations in this country includes a history of the rule of law not being respected,” she said.
“Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony today was amazing on many levels,” said Wab Kinew, Ojibwa, and an opposition leader in the Manitoba Province. “Not only did she speak truth to power, not only was it an explosive politically speaking, but her testimony also had a tremendous symbolic stream. Like, you think about it back in the 1950s ... status Indians in Canada weren't allowed to hire lawyers or get legal advice. Today in 2019 an Indigenous woman herself, a legal expert, just taught a masterclass to the permanent government in Ottawa about the importance of the rule of law. And she said, based on what you've seen with Indigenous people in this country, you see what happens when the rule of law is not followed.”
Kinew said the heart of the issue is whether the justice system is about fairness, treating a person or corporation differently because it has money.
“To me, this has been a real eye-opener and a reminder for why so many people in this country struggle,” he said. “Whether it's struggling with debt or healthcare or addictions or kids not getting a fair shot at life, it's because too often there's a permanent government in place that caters to the whims of the wealthy and these big companies and does not look after the best interests of everyone else in society.”
In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said she came “from a long line of matriarchs, and I’m a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am, and this is who I always will be.”
The Star called that statement “Canada’s Indigenous constitution in action.” It quoted First Nations leaders who said “that remark might have gone over the heads of Canadians unfamiliar with West Coast Indigenous cultures, but for her fellow Kwakiutl nation people — also known as Kwakwaka’wakw — the message was crystal clear. It was a statement about where she derives her authority, not merely as former attorney general, to take the stance she has.” The Star said “the Big House is actually both a metaphor and a building at the same time. It’s a metaphor for our world in the broadest sense. Everything in us and about us is contained in the Big House.”
After the resignation of Philpott at Treasury, another First Nation leader, Chief Bob Chamberlain, elected chief of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation, tweeted that “integrity and honesty are most needed in difficult times and that the Trudeau government is in absolute turmoil after the Philpott resignation. He wrote: “I love the fact that women are leading this demonstration of conviction and courage” in Canadian politics.
The story is not over yet. Wilson-Raybould has already said she will run for another term in parliament as a Liberal member from Vancouver-Granville in the coming elections. But if she wins, she may not be welcome in the caucus.
But one thing is certain: There will be an interesting election in Canada soon.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports