Wilson-Raybould's resignation will affect reconciliation progress: Indigenous leaders

While some Indigenous leaders praise her decision as principled, others criticize the Vancouver Liberal MP for abandoning her powerful cabinet post.

While some praise decision as principled, others criticize her for abandoning post

Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet has drawn a mixed reaction from Indigenous leaders across Canada.

While some see her decision as principled, others are criticizing the Vancouver MP for abandoning her powerful position as veterans affairs minister.

Canadians have been engaged in a national conversation on reconciliation ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was released, but some are wondering how to move forward, says Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Deborah Smith.

"I think it has a the potential to damage that, but I also believe that there's the opportunity to work — to, I guess, resolve that, get it back on track. But I guess that ball is now sitting in the other court," she said.

As Canada's first Indigenous justice minister and attorney general, Wilson-Raybould represented the voices of Indigenous people at the highest level of power in this country, Smith says.

On Tuesday, Wilson-Raybould announced she was resigning her position as veterans affairs minister, which she had recently assumed after being shuffled from her position as justice minister.

Her resignation followed a story in the Globe and Mail, which reported she had been pressured by the PMO to direct federal prosecutors to make a "deferred prosecution agreement" to avoid taking the Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin to trial on bribery and fraud charges in connection with contracts in Libya between 2001-2011.

"When we look at those glass ceilings, I certainly see her as someone who has been able to be a high-ranking member of the federal government. I certainly look at that and admire that," Smith said.

Deborah Smith was elected chief of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation on April 18, 2018. (Submitted by Deborah Smith)

In her time as justice minister, Wilson-Raybould did a lot to advance legislation on a number of major files, including the legalization of cannabis and assisted dying, Smith says, adding she had a strong understanding of the legal framework for Indigenous issues in Canada, and also did a lot to educate her fellow Members of Parliament.

With Wilson-Raybould gone, Indigenous women leaders have lost a role model, Smith says. She questions whether characterizations of Wilson-Raybould as "difficult" made by "insiders" in the Liberal party would have been made if she were a man.

"I'm disappointed about the characterizations that are coming out in the media, but I would say she is that she's a strong Indigenous woman leader that is very vocal and she's a strong advocate," Smith said.

Smith was elected as chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in April, defeating four men including Jim Bear, who had been chief since 2012.

Reconciliation will continue: MMF

Although some Indigenous leaders in Manitoba praised Wilson-Raybould's decision as principled move, others were more critical. 

"It's a really unfortunate decision. She's abandoned her post as minister, and we really feel that she has dropped the ball with regards to her citizens and as representing our people," said Andrew Carrier, vice-president of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

Her resignation will set back important projects, such as an agreement to fund services for Métis veterans, Carriers says, but despite that, reconciliation is a complex project with many people working on it.

"The resignation of the minister in this process is certainly going to cause delay, but will not stop the process," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr, speaking at an event in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

"We have moved further down the road to reconciliation than any other government in Canadian history, and we will continue to," he said.

Recent examples of reconciliation in action include the Hudson Bay Railway, whose ownership includes a 50-per-cent stake by First Nations communities along the line. Carr also points out that there are other Indigenous members of the government, including Winnipeg MPs Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Dan Vandal. 

The 2015 federal election brought a record 10 Indigenous MPs into the House of Commons, including eight Liberal MPs and two NDP MPs.

The resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet has drawn a mixed reaction from Indigenous leaders across Canada. 1:17

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson