Ahead of the cabinet shuffle in January 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould is said to have rebuffed an offer to take over the Indigenous Services file – apparently because of her opposition to the Indian Act, which she would have been tasked with administering in the role.
Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts said Trudeau decided to offer Indigenous Services to Wilson-Raybould because he wanted to signal to Indigenous communities that the file was still of incredible importance to him.
But some have questioned whether the offer of the Indigenous Services file was only perfunctory, because Wilson-Raybould’s previous public comments on the matter imply she would not accept the file.
Others said it showed how disconnected the Trudeau government is from Indigenous issues.
Butts acknowledged that had he had more time to think about the shuffle, he would have realized that would be her response. But he advised Trudeau that he couldn’t set a precedent for a minister to refuse to be shuffled, and therefore they moved Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs.
A request for comment from Wilson-Raybould went unanswered, but she has previously been outspoken on the matter.
WATCH: Jody Wilson-Raybould takes over Veterans Affairs in cabinet shuffle
Here’s what she has said
During the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat First Nations, where nearly a dozen people attempted to take their own lives on one night, Wilson-Raybould staunchly stated her opinion of the Indian Act, which is governed by the Indigenous Services ministry.
“For Attawapiskat and for all First Nations, the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government, it is not consistent with the rights enshrined in our Constitution, the principles as set out in (UNDRIP) or calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. In addition to the need for social and economic support, urgently needed in Attawapiskat and all First Nations, all Indigenous Peoples need to be empowered to take back control of their own lives,” she said in April 2016, according to APTN.
Even before joining the Liberal cabinet, Wilson-Raybould, who herself is Kwakwaka’wakw, authored a massive 800-plus page document outlining how First Nations could veer away from the Indian Act.
In testimony to the House of Commons justice committee, Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council said Wilson-Raybould doesn’t want to be Indigenous Affairs minister “and be seen as the Indian agent for her own people.”
An Indian agent was a person usually placed on reserves to enforce the Indian Act.
“So what that meant was there was somebody in the community who … was in charge of making sure the laws were being followed,” explained Tara Williamson, a research fellow at the First Nations-led Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University.
One can see why that person wouldn’t want the position, “given its continued effect on communities, on identity or even on just the imposition of chief and council system,” Williamson explained.
How did we get here?
The offer, described on Wednesday by Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to the prime minister, apparently came because the former minister, Jane Philpott, was being moved to the Treasury Board, to serve as its president following the sudden resignation of Scott Brison.
The shuffle also came after Wilson-Raybould, who was Canada’s attorney general and justice minister at the time, clashed with staffers at the Prime Minister’s Office over her decision not to intervene in the prosecution of Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin for corruption and bribery charges.
She testified last week she believes those attempts to get her to change her mind amount to attempted political interference by the PMO.
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have since resigned from cabinet. Wilson-Raybould cited a loss of confidence in Trudeau’s cabinet, while Philpott said she’d lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his officials have maintained the cabinet shuffle was solely because of the departure of Brison, the former president of the Treasury Board, Wilson-Raybould said she believed she was moved out of the Justice Ministry because of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
“I will not go into details of this call or subsequent communications about the shuffle but I will say that I stated, I believe the reason was because of the SNC matter,” she said in testimony last week.
WATCH: Wilson-Raybould describes moment she learned she was losing AG job
Asked Thursday why he didn’t keep Wilson-Raybould in her spot as Canada’s top lawyer after she declined the file on Indigenous Services, Trudeau sidestepped the question saying he needed strong people leading all parts of government.
“There’s no question that reconciliation, and indeed, relationships with Indigenous Peoples was something that has always been at the heart of this government,” Trudeau said. “These were important things that I thought she was going to excel at.”
WATCH: Butts describes moment Trudeau told Wilson-Raybould she would be moved to Indigenous Affairs
“If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice today,” Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts rebutted in his own testimony on Thursday. “That is a fact.”
Williamson, who is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, also said the SNC-Lavalin affair is intertwined in Indigenous issues – because of Wilson-Raybould’s heritage.
“I don’t know if it would be assumed that an AG would put up with the level of harassment she’s claiming from a prime minister, if that would happen if she weren’t a woman, if she weren’t Indigenous,” Williamson said.
The demotion from justice minister to Veterans Affairs looks like “powerful, white Canada, and even one of our most powerful is still being strong-armed,” Williamson said.
“People are proud to see she stood her ground.”
WATCH: Supporters defend Jody Wilson-Raybould
Background: What is the Indian Act?
The Act is the law that applies to Indigenous status, bands, and reserves in Canada. Started in late 1876, it included sections that didn’t allow Indigenous people to practice certain customs, or appear in ceremonial garb outside of their reserve.
The Act was administered by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs; later by the minister. Locally, it was enforced by Indian Agents.
“The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects,” Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, said at the time.
It was revised in 1951 – with the most oppressive sections being removed, but the government still has control over who is given Indian status.
The Indigenous Foundation at the University of British Columbia said the Act had “overarching political control” over Aboriginal communities.
“Throughout history, it has been highly invasive and paternalistic, as it authorizes the Canadian federal government to regulate and administer in the affairs and day-to-day lives of registered Indians and reserve communities. This authority has ranged from overarching political control, such as imposing governing structures on Aboriginal communities in the form of band councils, to control over the rights of Indians to practice their culture and traditions,” the foundation’s website reads.
WATCH: Trudeau outlines approach to abolishing Indian Act (Aug. 2017)
Many politicians have pledged to change or abolish the Act, including former Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and former Conservative prime minister Stephan Harper.
Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged in February last year to come up with a “framework” to replace the Indian Act. The framework has been delayed.
Just last month, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled the Indian Act discriminates against women – saying the fact that Indigenous women who marry non-Indigenous men have different rights to entitlement of status is discriminatory.