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In the year before the pandemic, Jody Wilson-Raybould served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s worst headache.
In a speech she gave on Wednesday, the former justice minister and attorney-general showed why she could become the PM’s worst nightmare.
“This practice, this hypocrisy, the affirmation of Charter rights… but denial of Indigenous rights is, in my opinion, the most insidious and prime example of systemic racism rooted in the legacy of colonialism that remains pervasive at the highest levels of government and underpins the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown,” Wilson-Raybould said.
Then she added a scorcher.
“The practice of denial has not changed. Unfortunately, shamefully, and disappointingly, we can look at the current government as an illustration,” she told the audience for the Thomas Courchene Distinguished Speaker Series hosted by Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies.
Nor did she just shellac “the government” in the abstract. She named her former boss directly. She lit into a speech Justin Trudeau gave in the House of Commons on Valentine’s Day 2018 in which he “acknowledged he and his government knew of this long-standing hypocrisy” and promised considerably more than a heart-shaped box of chocolates to make up for it.
“Imagine the mounting disappointment, the unsurprising and familiar headache, the rising tide of anger when… within a few months of the Valentine’s Day speech, those aspirations were abandoned. The government does not even talk about them anymore. This government just accepts that it is hypocritical, accepts the entrenched colonial and racist status quo, and carries on like governments past. What is so upsetting with this government is that (it) had a path to follow but would not follow it,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould calling out Justin Trudeau or his government is hardly new. Her insistence on holding the PM and his consiglieres accountable during the 2019 SNC Lavalin scandal got her bounced from cabinet, and ultimately out of the Liberal caucus. Partisans might also dismiss her caustic criticism as the continued sour grapes of a former senior player in Liberal power circles now exiled to the nowhere land of Independent MP for Vancouver Granville.
The weakness of such a dismissal is at least two-fold. First, it overlooks the objective reality that Wilson-Raybould is an Independent MP precisely because of her bred in the bone independence. As one of Justin Trudeau’s insider cabinet ministers, she refused to budge from her position that she held the role of attorney-general in order to be independent.
Failure to recognize that reality risks underestimating the appeal for someone like Wilson-Raybould of pursuing a path outside Parliament – and even as a direct challenge to it. And hey, ho, what do you know? Just such a path is now open for her.
In early July, the Assembly of First Nations holds its leadership vote to replace National Chief Perry Bellegarde. He announced last December he would not be seeking a third term atop the organization that advocates for 900,000 First Nations people across Canada. There is so far one declared candidate for job. It’s speculation whether Wilson-Raybould will add her name to the list.
But as Ottawa’s legendary Hill reporter Bob Fife wrote in a May 12 Globe and Mail story, “former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has not ruled out seeking the top AFN job.” Don’t forget: Fife and his Globe colleague Steve Chase broke the story about Wilson-Raybould kicking back against the SNC Lavlin debacle that gave the PM political migraines in 2019.
And it’s not just pale fellas from Northern Ontario who see the potential in a strong feminist committed to fighting for Indigenous rights taking her independence to the AFN, and becoming its first ever female national chief. Writing in the Hill Times this week, Rose LeMay argued just such a figure is needed to combat what she identified as a serious #MeToo problem inside the AFN.
“Will this be the time when First Nations commit to respect women in all aspects of governance of this national organization? Will any women run for national chief, or is it still the old boys club?” demanded LeMay, CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group.
In a Globe opinion column last January, looking ahead to the July AFN vote, Indigenous campaign organizer Tania Cameron surveyed the past quarter century of strong women candidates who’ve failed to breach that old boys network.
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“That’s 10 women over 26 years who have felt the sting of defeat, a discouraging result for any talented Indigenous women hoping to achieve high office,” Cameron wrote.
Well, as it happens, a certain Independent MP for Vancouver Granville has achieved the high office of justice minister and attorney general of Canada. And as she said in her speech at Queen’s University, her “experience at the centre of government” showed her the disheartening effect of relying entirely on Parliament to change the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous people.
“We know the outcome of that: only the colonized can decolonize (themselves),” Wilson-Raybould said this week.
Does that make her remarks the equivalent of a campaign kickoff for the AFN top job? Hardly. Indeed, there’s a great deal of content in what she said that deserves close attention, and which I plan to write about in future. But even taken as a hint that she’s considering a run, the implications for Canadian politics are profound. They’re deeply meaningful for Indigenous causes. But they also signal the potential for radically different days as far as national political institutions are concerned.
For Justin Trudeau? They would undoubtedly mean the paradox of sleepless nights and rude awokenings.
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