Politics

'She was the hope': Indigenous leaders shocked by Philpott's cabinet resignation

Indigenous leaders are expressing a sense of loss after Liberal MP Jane Philpott, who used to serve as health and Indigenous services minister, quit her cabinet post as Treasury Board president over the Trudeau government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Philpott's departure letter says she remains 'firmly committed' to justice for Indigenous peoples

Jane Philpott, seen at a 2018 Assembly of First Nations meeting, was shuffled from minister of Indigenous services to the Treasury Board. She quit her post as Treasury Board president over the government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indigenous leaders are expressing a sense of loss after Liberal MP Jane Philpott, who used to serve as health and Indigenous services minister, quit her cabinet post as Treasury Board president on Monday over the Trudeau government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. 

"I was quite surprised and saddened," said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation and vice-president of the Métis National Council.

"She was bringing hope. True hope."

In her resignation letter, Philpott listed improving infrastructure for First Nations, providing clean water on reserve, and reforming child welfare among her accomplishments. 

She also wrote she is "firmly committed" to justice for Indigenous peoples. But Chartrand is disappointed with her resignation, and questions how effective her work will be outside of the government's inner circle.

"How are you going to make change when inside you could've made massive change," Chartrand said.

"This is a minister I have unbelievable respect for .... But in my view, I'm also hurt."

Chartrand worked with Philpott on proposals to reform the child welfare system and to reduce the number of Indigenous youth in care. He said he could tell she was invested in an overhaul after he noticed she was brought to tears when she heard the stories of young people who had endured mental, physical, and sexual abuse after they were apprehended.

Their efforts were part of a process that led to the introduction of an Bill C-92: An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. The legislation, meant to be a massive overhaul around Indigenous child-welfare, was introduced in the House of Commons just last week

Chartrand said he thinks Philpott, in her role as Treasury Board president, could have helped secure the funding required to actually finance programs needed to make a revamped system a success.

He said not only did Philpott help design the proposed changes, she had a chance to make sure the outcome lived up to its "best results — the intention of what this legislation is supposed to do."

"I'm sure the young people that she met and everything are going to be hurting because they had such great hope ... She's abandoned these kids."

Philpott 'took the time'

Government business continues with Carla Qualtrough, minister of public service and procurement, taking on Philpott's slot at the Treasury Board until a decision is made about whether to fill the position before the election. 

Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario, said it won't be the same without Philpott. 

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, left to right, Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand and President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed listen to a reporters question during an availability in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in 2016. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"I think she was one of those rare officials in government who really took the time to get to know the issues not just by reading briefing notes, but by actually going to the communities and investing her time and energy to build her relationships with the communities and leaderships," said Fiddler.

"I think that's been the key to her success."

Although Fiddler will miss Philpott, he doesn't hold her departure against her. 

"I'm sure that it wasn't easy for her to make this decision," Fiddler said. "I respect her for that."

Former health minister Jane Philpott looks on as then justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould responds to a question from the media in 2016. Both ministers resigned from their positions after expressing concern about the government's handling of the the SNC-Lavalin case. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In an email to CBC News, President Natan Obed of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami wrote he had a productive working relationship with Philpott on files ranging from suicide prevention to Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee.

He said while he's sad to see her go, his organization's work with Ottawa is ongoing

In a tweet, the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called Philpott's resignation a "major loss." 

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan also took to Twitter to commend Philpott on her leadership and thank her for her support.

Philpott's resignation comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces increased scrutiny over the handling of legal proceedings against Quebec-based construction and engineering giant SNC-Lavalin. 

Philpott wrote she has lost confidence in how the government has dealt with the SNC-Lavalin matter and the issues it has raised — but Chartrand had positive words about the embattled prime minister.

In more than 40 years of dealing with Ottawa, he said he has never seen a prime minister go as far as Trudeau has with reconciliation, and he doesn't want the departure of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and Philpott to distract from that. 

"Reconciliation is truly happening right now and this should not in any way affect it," Chartrand said. 

"It better not affect it. We worked too hard and we waited too damn long to get here."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.