How the SNC-Lavalin affair became entangled with Trudeau's Indigenous reconciliation agenda

Two of the key moments in the SNC-Lavalin affair have also emerged as pivotal moments in the government's promise to Indigenous peoples.

First Nations leaders concerned over Indigenous relations minister's handling of rights file

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reconciliation agenda has faced a hit as the SNC Lavalin affair unfolded. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The seeds of the SNC-Lavalin controversy germinated as one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's central promises to Indigenous peoples began to wither.

The SNC-Lavalin affair has ensnared Ottawa in a bramble of questions over political pressure and judicial interference in the prosecution of the Quebec-based multinational engineering firm.

But two of the key moments in the affair — Jody Wilson-Raybould's meeting with Trudeau on Sept. 17, and her shuffle from the justice portfolio — have also emerged as pivotal moments in the government's reconciliation agenda.

This story is about a Valentine's Day promise and a crucial decision that not only set the stage for the SNC-Lavalin controversy, but also potentially threatened a relationship Trudeau said was at the "heart" of his government's priorities.

Questions about the government's commitment to reconciliation aren't new, but they sprang up again when Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her position as justice minister and attorney general in January. That shuffle happened before the Globe and Mail broke the story about the SNC-Lavalin affair. The government's handling of it ultimately led Jane Philpott to leave cabinet earlier this week.

Philpott, who was at Indigenous services before she was shuffled to Treasury Board in January, was driving the department to end long-term boil water advisories on reserves and managing the complex work of co-developing a landmark bill on Indigenous child welfare.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, and Jane Philpott, right, were part of a "dream team" on the reconciliation agenda. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As justice minister, Wilson-Raybould had the levers of the legal machinery of Ottawa that had often resisted the progress of Indigenous rights that had been propelled by successive courtroom victories over the past decades.   

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were once considered part of a "dream team" on the government's reconciliation agenda, along with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations.

Bennett is now the only member of that team left — and she's facing headwinds of her own after the Trudeau government decided to shelve a central promise of its reconciliation agenda.

A fateful text

In Wilson-Raybould's telling, the beginnings of the SNC-Lavalin affair sprouted in early September, around the time the former justice minister wrapped up a Five Eyes security meeting in Australia. She was taking a few days off when a "very important issue arose."

On Sept. 6, 2018, two days after receiving a memo from the director of public prosecutions on the SNC-Lavalin criminal case, Wilson-Raybould sent a text to Trudeau's former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, requesting a meeting with the prime minister to discuss an issue central to the government's reconciliation agenda.

According to Trudeau's statement this past Thursday, coupled with Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick's testimony in late February before the House of Commons justice committee, Wilson-Raybould wanted to talk to the prime minister about the recognition and implementation of an Indigenous rights framework. The framework aimed to enshrine the Constitution's Section 35, which affirms Aboriginal rights into federal law.

The framework was the central promise of Trudeau's reconciliation agenda, and he announced it with much fanfare during a House of Commons speech on Valentine's Day 2018.

When Wilson-Raybould sent the Sept. 6 text to Butts, work on the framework was publicly unraveling.

An older man in a suit looks off camera, seated with his hands clasped.
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick handled the Indigenous recognition of rights framework for the Prime Minister's Office. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The text led to a meeting on Sept. 17 that has now become central to the SNC-Lavalin saga — this was where Wilson-Raybould said she looked the prime minister in the eye and asked him if he was politically interfering on the file.

But Trudeau has said SNC-Lavalin only took up five minutes of a roughly 45-minute meeting about the framework promise. And the framework was facing trouble on all sides.

According to February testimony from Wernick, Wilson-Raybould and Bennett were in a policy standoff over the direction of the framework. Externally, the Assembly of First Nations chiefs had rejected the framework by the time of the September meeting and grassroots activists were preparing to fight it.

The meeting eventually led to a cabinet decision to shelve plans to table the framework in the fall, according to Wernick, who attended the meeting because he was handling the file on behalf of the Prime Minister's Office.

It was a major reversal on a promise central to Trudeau's reconciliation efforts.

Trudeau's offer

In testimony before the justice committee Wednesday, Butts said Trudeau told Wilson-Raybould in a Jan. 7 phone call he wanted to move her from justice to Indigenous services to replace Philpott, who would be moved to Treasury Board in the Jan. 14 cabinet shuffle.

Trudeau maintained on Thursday that his decision to shuffle Wilson-Raybould from justice to Indigenous services was the right move, because he was thinking about the importance of the Indigenous child welfare bill promised by his government.

"There is no question that reconciliation, and indeed the relationship with Indigenous peoples, was something that has always been at the heart of the priorities of this government," said Trudeau.

"I thought … she would be excellent … and that it would be very good to indicate just how much this issue continued to matter to our government."

Former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine says work must not stop on repealing the Indian Act. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But Wilson-Raybould refused to take on that portfolio, which draws much of its authority from the Indian Act, 140-year-old legislation she spent most of her political life fighting. This forced the prime minister to put her into Veterans Affairs.

In testimony on Wednesday, Butts said that in hindsight, he should have known Wilson-Raybould would never accept the Indigenous services job. Wernick also testified in late February that Wilson-Raybould had publicly stated she didn't want to be the "Indian agent" to her own people by leading an Indigenous affairs portfolio.

However, Trudeau's decision to make Wilson-Raybould an offer she couldn't accept released the gas that would eventually ignite into a political firestorm.

Wilson-Raybould was then moved to veterans affairs, the Globe and Mail story broke and she quit cabinet.

The 'dream team' no more

With Wilson-Raybould and Philpott now gone from cabinet, Bennett is the only remaining member of the reconciliation dream team.

While Bennett's work has received public support from high-profile Indigenous leaders like Clément Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, on the First Nation side, there are doubts about her performance.

Some First Nations leaders blame Bennett for the framework's failure. Bennett had the lead on the file and had embarked on cross-country engagement, seeking input from Indigenous leaders on developing the framework. But Bennett's results were underwhelming.

"I don't think Bennett understood what we were trying to do," said British Columbia Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Terry Teegee.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett is the last remaining member of the 'dream team' on the government's reconciliation agenda. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"As far as Indigenous peoples are concerned, and our leadership, reconciliation is a preoccupation," said Phil Fontaine, a former three-term Assembly of First Nations national chief who dealt with the governments of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.

"I thought we were well on track in that regard, and I know that there are many, many of our people that see this as a real setback, because of the resignation of these two important ministers."

Fontaine said Ottawa and First Nations leaders should not give up on the idea of the framework, which was presented as a path for First Nations to reconstitute their governments outside the Indian Act.

"There ought to have been, I think, better teamwork and a greater commitment on the part of the people that had some degree of responsibility for repealing the Indian Act to work together," said Fontaine.

Bennett has launched a new process to salvage part of Trudeau's promise to fundamentally alter Ottawa's recognition of Indigenous rights. In January, Bennett launched a process to overhaul federal policies on modern treaties, self-government and land additions to reserves.

But the design of that process has already hit resistance.

Alberta AFN regional Chief Marlene Poitras, who holds the lands, territories and resources portfolio, said Bennett hasn't learned from the failure of the framework, and is making the same mistakes on the policy changes.

"First Nations rejected the rights and recognition framework and it appears she is still trying to move her agenda forward," said Poitras. "If she is really talking about reconciliation, she needs to give reconciliation a good thought, in terms of its meaning and approach."

'The challenge hasn't disappeared'

On Wednesday, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde sent a letter to Bennett rejecting the plan the minister crafted to revamp the policies by June 2019. Bellegarde's letter contained a counter proposal spreading the process to make the changes over a longer time frame.

"Any approach that fails to provide First Nations with the time and resources needed to adequately prepare and participate will not succeed," said the letter. "That challenge hasn't disappeared, it is still very much a matter that has to be resolved."

Bennett's office said in a statement the Trudeau government had accomplished much with "Indigenous partners."

The statement said these accomplishments included the Sixties Scoop settlement and the signing of the Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement in Ontario — the largest First Nation education agreement in Canadian history.

The statement said that work is "ongoing" with the AFN on the policy changes, and that the government believes that legislative changes are still necessary to ensure future governments recognize Indigenous rights.

One promise Trudeau did meet was February's tabling of the Indigenous child welfare bill, Bill C-92.

While Seamus O'Regan is now in charge of the Indigenous Services file, the bill is the result of Philpott's work, and she appeared at the press conference announcing its tabling.

Mary Teegee, executive director of the Carrier Sekani Family Services in B.C., says Jane Philpott was instrumental in getting the child welfare bill onto the order paper. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Philpott "was a champion and committed to ensuring that this bill was tabled," said Mary Teegee, executive director of the Carrier Sekani Family Services in B.C.

Wilson-Raybould also played a key role on the bill with Philpott, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

"This is her handiwork," said Turpel-Lafond. "It's a little hard for me to take that we have it, but the woman who did it is sitting out in the cold."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him