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SNC-Lavalin fallout has some Indigenous Canadians questioning Trudeau's commitment to reconciliation

SNC-Lavalin fallout has some Indigenous Canadians questioning Trudeau’s commitment to reconciliation


The Trudeau government is defending its commitment to reconciliation as a growing number of Indigenous leaders and youth say they’re discouraged by his decision to eject two key figures on the file from the Liberal caucus.

“I’m very disappointed that it had to come to this,” said Linden Waboose, a 22-year-old from from Eabametoong First Nation who sits on the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Oshkaatisak Council, an advisory network of ten youths aged 18-29 from Northern Ontario.

“I feel like [Trudeau] doesn’t value that relationship he committed to in 2015.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said no relationship is more important to him and to Canada than the one with First Nations, the Metis Nation and Inuit Peoples.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at an evening caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday after kicking both former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and fellow ex-cabinet minister Jane Philpott out of the Liberal caucus. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The day after he chose to oust Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus, Trudeau faced some hard questions about that promise from young women who gathered on Wednesday for the Daughters of the Vote event in the House of Commons. In response, Trudeau said again that reconciliation is “probably one of the most important” issues for his government.

Reconciliation ‘way more than one person’

Many in Indigenous communities saw Wilson-Raybould and Philpott as champions of their causes.

Philpott won respect for her efforts as Indigenous Services minister to end drinking water advisories and reform Indigenous child welfare. Wilson-Raybould was, of course, the first Indigenous person to hold the position of justice minister and attorney general.

Crown–Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett says the government’s work on reconciliation goes beyond the work of one person. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett calls Wilson-Raybould a trailblazer, but said the work on reconciliation continues.

“This is way more than one person,” Bennett said.

“This is our Indigenous caucus. This is all the partnerships we made. We want to keep going on reconciliation. Equality means that if you cross the line, there are consequences.”

Investments in reconciliation are significant part of the Liberal government’s election year budget; $4.5 billion has been added over the next five years to try to narrow the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

‘Irreparable harm and damage’

The SNC-Lavalin scandal has been eating into Liberal support since Feb. 7, when the Globe and Mail reported that Wilson-Raybould had faced inappropriate political pressure over the decision to pursue criminal prosecution of the company on bribery charges. Wilson-Raybould and Philpott both later resigned from cabinet to protest the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file.

In her testimony before the Commons Justice Committee during its investigation of the SNC-Lavalin affair, Wilson-Raybould said she would not apologize for being a strong advocate of transformative change for Indigenous peoples.

As she was being shuffled from her justice post, she warned senior people in the government that it would not look good for the government.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, wants the prime minister to apologize to Jody-Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In text messages to Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s then-principal secretary, she wrote that the “timing of pushing me out (which will be the perception, whether true or not) is terrible. It will be confounding and perplexing to people.”

That perception is already being echoed by some.

“I think there is irreparable harm and damage done to Prime Minister Trudeau’s vision and stated intent to carry forward the reconciliation agenda,” said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

“The trust has been broken.”

Russ Diabo, a First Nations policy analyst, believes reconciliation is tied to the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Stewart warned that the Trudeau government will be a “one-time wonder” and said the only way it can repair its relationship with those hurt over the prime minister’s decision to oust Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from caucus is for Trudeau to apologize and then step down.

The outrage could have consequences in this fall’s federal election. Some pollsters suggest Indigenous voters could swing the outcome in as many as 11 ridings.

A ‘double standard’

First Nations policy analyst Russ Diabo said he also believes the way Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were dropped from caucus will cast a shadow over the government’s reconciliation agenda. He pointed out that Wilson-Raybould was offered the Indigenous Services portfolio after being shuffled out of justice, but turned it down because of her opposition to the Indian Act she would have had to administer in that job.

“In the context of this reconciliation agenda, she is a symbol of, I think, the Trudeau government’s commitment to fulfilling that,” Diabo said.

“The intent of the government is in question.”

Diabo said the criticism of Wilson-Raybould over her decision to secretly record a phone call with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick amounts to a “double standard,” because Wernick was deputy minister in the former Indian Affairs department when it was monitoring the social media posts of First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock.

Sheelah McLean, one of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement, said Philpott is also a symbol — of how non-Indigenous Canadians can stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.

“The fact that they left together, I think, is a much larger narrative that really challenges what’s been happening in Canada over the last 150 years,” McLean said.

“This is about Indigenous peoples standing up against government and corporations, and then about what are Canadians, what are non-Indigenous people going to do to support Indigenous people as they continue this fight against colonialism.”

AFN questions government’s ‘motivations and actions’

In a written statement, the Assembly of First Nations also expresses its disappointment with Philpott and Wilson-Raybould’s punishment.

“The events of the past few weeks raise serious concerns about the motivations and actions of this government,” wrote National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“In order to regain First Nations’ trust, we must all recommit ourselves to reconciliation and I urge both the Government of Canada and all parliamentarians to focus on passing key First Nation legislative priorities in this session of Parliament. This includes supporting a better future for First Nations children and families based on respect for our rights, languages, and cultures.”

Supporters of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott like B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee are using the hashtags #istandwithJody and #istandwithjane online.

“She [Wilson-Raybould] was doing her job, upholding the law and the integrity of the attorney general’s office, and as soon as she did that and held to her principles, as an Indigenous woman, as a government official, she’s being punished for it by the powers at be,” Teegee said.

“I think it could’ve been handled a lot better.”

But not every organization feels that way.

Metis Nation defends Trudeau

Clément Chartier, the president of the Métis Nation, questions why the two MPs weren’t expelled from the Liberal caucus sooner.

“For the Métis Nation, we believe that this prime minister and this government have done more than any other government, or more than any other prime minister, in dealing with us on a nation-to-nation, government-to-government basis,” Chartier said.

“This whole thing with the former attorney general, we saw as a major distraction getting away from what the prime minister should be concentrating on in terms of reconciliation, and in particular with the major nation.”

Waboose said the examples of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have convinced him to pursue a career in politics.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde and then-Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott listen to a delegate’s question at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa in December 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

“It’s inspired me to be a politician one day,” said Waboose, who wants to be an MP.

“I hope one day that I can become the first prime minister, the first Indigenous prime minister of Canada.”

Ashley Wesley, 24, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, sees this as a moment for the government to act.

“Some youth are really disappointed and discouraged by what’s happened. Other youth have expressed they’re upset, but they’re also motivated to try to push for changes in the government,” Wesley said.

“This is an opportunity for the government to show they are really serious.”





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Trudeau's Senate point man withdraws motion condemned by Tories as 'time allocation on steroids'

Trudeau’s Senate point man withdraws motion condemned by Tories as ‘time allocation on steroids’


Peter Harder, the federal Liberal government’s representative in the Senate, has withdrawn a controversial ‘programming motion’ that had the Conservative opposition up in arms.

There are roughly eight weeks left in the current session before Parliament is scheduled to rise for its summer recess. This is also the last sitting before an expected fall federal election — meaning there is extra pressure on the Liberal government to clear the decks of legislation before it asks voters for another mandate.

Claiming that Tory intransigence had forced his hand, Harder tabled a motion Tuesday that would have curtailed the amount of time the upper house would have to study and debate 11 pieces of government legislation.

The Conservatives slammed the motion as “time allocation on steroids,” calling it a betrayal of the government’s promise to “do politics differently.”

Harder defended the motion, saying it was made necessary by an impasse in his negotiations with Conservative leadership on a timeline for seeing a number of Liberal bills through the Senate before summer.

Today, Harder said he’d reached an arrangement with the Conservatives to make the timeline work. Harder withdrew his motion shortly after question period today, saying only that a deal had been reached on timelines without specifying what those timelines would be.

Some of the bills in question have been in the Senate for more than a year, while others were only recently introduced and are still at early stages of passage through the upper house.

Harder had proposed strict timelines for wrapping up both committee study and third reading debate on the bills, to ensure any amended legislation could be sent to the Commons in early June for review by government and MPs in the lower house.

The bills awaiting passage include some key items of Liberal legislation, such as: Bill C-48, the northern B.C. oil tanker ban; Bill C-69, the overhaul of existing environmental assessment regime for natural resources projects; Bill C-71, changes to the country’s firearms law; Bill C-81, which makes sweeping changes to federal law for people with disabilities; and Bill C-85, the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

It is not the first time Conservative senators have been accused during this parliamentary session of holding up bills, including legislation on trans rights, a gender-neutral O Canada and a ban on holding whales in captivity. The Conservatives maintain that, as the opposition, it’s their job to oppose government business at every turn.

“With the media focused on the prime minister booting two members of caucus, the government quietly put forward a motion that shuts down the abilities of senators to review and question government legislation,” Larry Smith, the Conservative leader in the Senate, said of Harder’s motion.

Harder has said senators on all sides of the chamber will have ample time to debate, study and move amendments to the legislation.

‘This is not some schoolyard squabble’

To date, Harder largely has avoided introducing time allocation motions in the Senate. Time allocation is a tool used by all previous government leaders in the Senate to curtail how long members of the upper house can study, debate or amend government legislation. It’s also used frequently in the Commons.

Harder threatened to use the tool on Bill C-45, the government’s cannabis legislation, but backed off after securing a timeline with the Tories.

Speaking in the Senate Wednesday before Harder withdrew his motion, Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, the party’s whip, said he and Smith have always negotiated in good faith with Harder and his manoeuvre came as a surprise.

“I met with you in your office. We had what I thought was a very collegial conversation about moving legislation forward,” Plett said in question period, addressing Harder. “I kept my part of the bargain. You did not. In complete contradiction of your word to me, you tabled a programming motion that is seven pages long and impacts 11 bills.

“This is not some schoolyard squabble. What you have done impacts the ability to move legislation forward in a manner which respects the traditions, conventions and values of this chamber. Having broken your word to us on this matter, how am I or any other senator in this chamber supposed to trust your word going forward?”

Harder said the “programming approach” should come as no surprise to the Conservative opposition.

“It is my responsibility to prepare for all eventualities, and those preparations have been under way for some time,” Harder said. “Without going into all of the details … let me simply reiterate that I have, over the last number of weeks, spoken about the need to have a programming approach.”





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How the SNC-Lavalin affair tested Trudeau's ideals

How the SNC-Lavalin affair tested Trudeau’s ideals


The thing about standing for an ideal is that people expect you to live up to it — or at least to their idea of it.

Justin Trudeau built his leadership upon a set of ideals: “sunny ways,” cabinet government, transparency, openness, inclusion, reconciliation, gender equality and doing things “differently.” Trudeau’s commitment to nearly every one of those principles has been challenged by critics and rivals over the last two months — his commitment to feminism in particular, now that Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have been expelled from the Liberal parliamentary caucus.

Outside the House of Commons on Tuesday, reporters pressed Trudeau and his ministers to comment on the government’s feminist credentials and the message sent to young women by the expulsions of two women who had become the prime minister’s prominent critics.

“We have a strong prime minister that is a feminist. We have a feminist agenda. Our record speaks for itself,” said Mélanie Joly, the tourism minister. “As to my two colleagues, I would argue that loyalty and feminism are two different things. And actually, there is no female or male definition of loyalty. It’s either you have team spirit, you want to work in a team, or you don’t.”

So perhaps two male ministers, behaving exactly the same way, would have met the same fate.

At the Daughters of the Vote event in the House on Tuesday — a biannual gathering that puts young women in the seats of MPs for a morning of speeches and discussion — some 50 delegates stood and silently turned their backs as the prime minister delivered his remarks.

An awkward diversion

Trudeau acknowledged the obvious tension of the day, but then awkwardly tried to contrast the departure of two strong women with … the continued presence of two strong women.

“I know nobody in here wants to have to pick who to believe between Jody Wilson Raybould and Chrystia Freeland,” he said. “Nobody wants to know that one person has to be right and another person has to be wrong between Jane Philpott or Maryam Monsef.”

That women stood behind Trudeau’s decision to expel Wilson-Raybould and Philpott likely is not irrelevant. But maybe it’s not the prime minister’s task to pit them against each other.

It’s likely not up to any one person (certainly not me) to say whether Trudeau is a good feminist. But if there was any solace for Trudeau in the Commons yesterday, it was in the fact that all 338 of those young women — even the ones unhappy with him — stayed in the chamber as he spoke. Moments prior, several dozen delegates simply walked out on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s speech.

(On the other hand, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s speech was received enthusiastically by the group — which might make Trudeau anxious.)

“By kicking the first Indigenous former attorney general of Canada out of caucus for upholding the law, the prime minister has made it clear that principled women who dare to stand up to him are not welcome in the Liberal Party,” the NDP’s Jenny Kwan charged in question period. “Is this what a self-proclaimed feminist looks like in 2019?”

Trudeau tried to make the case for his own feminism, or at least for his government’s commitment to the ideal: a development assistance policy aimed at women and girls, gender-based analysis of budgets, legislated pay equity, funding for women’s organizations and a gender-balanced cabinet.

Then the prime minister offered a bit of meta commentary.

“I recognize there is much more to do and I am proud that there is now a contest among party leaders to see who can be the better feminist. I think that is a great thing for this country. I think that is a great thing for Parliament.”

Perhaps there’s some solace there too.

Thus far, but not far enough

The struggle between Trudeau and his ideals has been real. He waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality to allow Wilson-Raybould to speak about her time as attorney general, but she objected that the waiver did not go far enough. Liberal members of the justice committee were apparently free to look into the SNC affair, but then the hearings were abandoned.

In both cases, Trudeau probably went further than Stephen Harper would have gone. But in neither case did he go as far as he could have.

In vowing to do things differently, he raised the expectation that — when confronted with a profound challenge — he would be perfectly forthcoming, without regard for the normal political impulse to control the narrative and limit the damage.

Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould leaves West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 2, 2019. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In appointing the first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney general, he put an incredible burden on himself and his office to ensure both her success and a good working relationship between them. That made the possibility of moving her, or demoting her, a daunting prospect.

For all that, Trudeau might now fall back on what he’s been insisting all along — that neither he nor his office did anything wrong (the claim that they did is at least in dispute) and that their cause (saving jobs) was just.

Wilson-Raybould says she told Gerry Butts, Trudeau’s former adviser, that the Prime Minister’s Office was inappropriately pressuring her. Butts disputes that claim. Wilson-Raybould did raise a concern in a phone call with the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. But Wernick seems not to have told Trudeau about what she said.

The power of symbolism

Liberals will also argue that they had perfectly valid reasons for wanting Wilson-Raybould and Philpott gone from caucus — starting with the fact that, at the very least, they had reasons to believe they no longer all shared the same goal.

But Trudeau and his fellow Liberals must understand the symbolic value of everything that’s happened with the SNC-Lavalin file. Two impressive women now sit outside the Liberal caucus. We’re still waiting on an ethics commissioner probe; the facts have not been fully and completely aired.

Maybe his political opponents weren’t complaining in good faith. Maybe nothing would have satisfied them.

But the last two months will still weigh down any attempt by Trudeau to lay claim to those ideals. Trudeau must hope that giving voice to those ideals, and his pursuit of them, still count for something, even if he has not always fully embodied the ideal.



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