OTTAWA — Indigenous parliamentarians say Jody Wilson-Raybould’s controversial exit from the cabinet doesn’t signal the end of reconciliation efforts between the federal government and Indigenous Peoples.
But they say her departure is a sign of how much work there is still to do.
“Even though some will see this as a threat to the promise and process of reconciliation, it is not,” eight Indigenous senators said in a written statement issued Thursday.
“It is a measure of the distance they have yet to go and the challenges we have yet to overcome. As long as Ms. Wilson-Raybould and other men and women like her gain and remain on the national scene and show the integrity we need to persevere on this journey, change will occur.”
The statement was drafted by independent Sen. Murray Sinclair, a former judge who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined the history of residential schools in Canada. It was signed by him and seven other Indigenous senators.
An Indigenous Liberal MP offered a similar sentiment.
“I think Jody resigning from cabinet is a huge loss … for Indigenous communities right across the country,” said Don Rusnak, who represents the Ontario riding of Thunder Bay-Rainy River and was the inaugural chair of the Liberals’ Indigenous caucus.
That said, Rusnak argued that no one person speaks for Indigenous communities, each of which is unique.
“Jody is one of those voices and one of those trusted voices but we have others and non-Indigenous people in our cabinet and in our caucus that speak with communities, have relationships with communities,” he said in an interview.
“I think, I know that the prime minister is sincere in what he is trying to do and the work will continue.”
Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet Tuesday amid a furor over an allegation that the Prime Minister’s Office improperly pressured her last fall to help Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution on corruption and bribery charges related to government contracts in Libya. Wilson-Raybould was justice minister and attorney general at the time but was demoted to veterans affairs in a January cabinet shuffle.
The move wasn’t explained at the time. On Thursday, Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather speculated in a radio interview that Trudeau might have wanted a justice minister who spoke better French because “there’s a lot of legal issues coming up in Quebec.”
Housefather chairs the House of Commons justice committee, which voted on Wednesday to take up an examination of Wilson-Raybould’s departure, though a much more limited one than opposition members want.
Wilson-Raybould made history when she became the first Indigenous justice minister back in 2015. She became a powerful symbol of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that there was no relationship more important to him than that with Indigenous Peoples.
Some Indigenous leaders across the country have excoriated Trudeau for what they perceive as his shoddy treatment of Wilson-Raybould, which they assert proves his reconciliation agenda is a farce.
But the Indigenous senators’ statement is much more circumspect, praising Wilson-Raybould for her “courage and leadership” while not taking sides in the dispute between the former minister and Trudeau.