The appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a We Wai Kai First Nation woman, to serve as the first Indigenous minister of justice was a powerful symbol for Indigenous people and a signal to all of Canada.
Her resignation from cabinet is equally powerful.
Trudeau was elected promising that the relationship this country has with Indigenous people was, to him, of the utmost importance. When Wilson-Raybould was appointed attorney general, it signalled that maybe he meant it, that maybe this time would be different. Maybe Wilson-Raybould would finally be the one to uphold basic human rights and fairness for Indigenous people.
A First Nations woman was the top lawyer in a country that still has the paternalistic Indian Act on its books, that consistently fails to properly “consult” Indigenous communities on decisions that profoundly affect them, that claims it desperately wants to reconcile yet fights not to deliver equitable health, education and social services to Indigenous kids.
Perhaps, it seemed for a moment, she could change history.
But it wasn’t long before that old familiar feeling of doubt crept in.
There was double speak on what nation-to-nation actually meant. There was little progress on bringing clean drinking water to First Nations. There was big talk but no action on revising the Indian Act. More inadequate consultations. And on and on.
It must have been increasingly uncomfortable for Wilson-Raybould in cabinet, watching as the government ignored its promises on making First Nations, Métis and Inuit proper partners in everything from drafting legislation to fulfilling funding commitments.
And then, abruptly, she was no longer the country’s top lawyer, fired from her historic role and shuffled off to Veterans Affairs.
There were planted whispers in the corridors of power that she had been demoted because she was a “thorn in the side” of the Trudeau government, because she was “difficult to get along with,” because she was someone people had “trouble trusting.”
How much of that perception was created because she was too honest and too blunt about the government’s empty rhetoric on reconciliation?
Incensed, First Nations leaders stood staunchly by Wilson-Raybould.
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs accused the Trudeau government of racist and sexist overtones in a whisper campaign against her after she left Justice.
“I’m familiar with her work ethic, her deep dedication and commitment,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the union, who has known Wilson-Raybould for years.
“She is an amazing individual but to see her publicly humiliated and the subject of a deliberate smear campaign is infuriating,” he said.
“We are completely disgusted with the Trudeau government and its handling of this issue … I know Jody. She is full of integrity.”
Eventually, of course, a new story about her demotion emerged — that she had been pressured to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin and was punished for her refusal.
She said on Tuesday that she resigned from cabinet with a “heavy heart.” When she first sought elected federal office — after practising law on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and serving as the British Columbia regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations — she truly felt she could make a difference. She wanted to pursue “a positive and progressive vision of change on behalf of all Canadians,” she wrote in her resignation letter, “and a different way of doing politics.” Maybe she could change things using the master’s tools in the master’s house.
But that is harder than it looks. Even the purest of intentions and hope are rarely a match for 150 years of colonial history.
Then, on Tuesday night, the prime minister seemed to throw Wilson-Raybould under the bus. He said if she had any problem with what was happening, it was her “responsibility” to come directly to him, and she did not. Trudeau said he was “disappointed” with her decision to leave cabinet. He also mentioned that Canadians are “puzzled” by her resignation and so was he.
Not all of us are. She clearly had her reasons.
Perhaps she had enough of the colonial power system.
In any case, the result is the same: she is no longer in a position potentially to overhaul that system from within, and so yet another symbol has soured.
Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald tweeted, “Ninanaskamon 4 your groundbreaking work as the 1st Indigenous woman to serve as the top lawyer in Canada. I know this will only be a temporary setback for you. Your kind of strength and leadership is unstoppable in the long run. Remember who you REALLY are @Puglass.”
Wilson-Raybould signed her letter with her traditional name, Puglass. It means “a woman born to noble people.”
We should wait and listen to hear what this noble woman has to say.
Tanya Talaga is a Toronto-based columnist covering Indigenous issues. Follow her on Twitter: @tanyatalaga