The House of Commons is currently on it’s last big break before they rise for the Summer. After that, when the Fall comes, the writ will drop and the 43rd General Election will start. So many MPs are making good use of this time, getting to events and being out there. So when an MP or two is scheduled to give a keynote speech at a major regional event on a week like this, it really shouldn’t jump out at anyone. Yet today there was such a speech given at such an event that was given by two MPs, one that rightfully drew a lot of attention and spoke volumes beyond the words that they spoke:
The scene that took place in Richmond, at the meeting of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, was something to behold. It was full of respect, full of sacred ceremony and also full of strong messages of truth, truths that the Government of Canada probably didn’t want to hear, let alone be heard by a gaggle of journalists taking it all in. Taking this in the proper order, the event started with salutary comments about the two honoured guest speakers to come. The Chair of the Council, Doug White, stated that both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott represented “the right approach to embracing principle, with clarity, without any hesitation.” During his introduction of the former cabinet ministers, B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip described their actions as an “incredible stand… against the absolute injustices that were perpetrated against these very strong, principled women in regards to the shenanigans that were going on in Ottawa.” Those are strong words coming from strong Indigenous leaders, the kinds of words that used to be directed at Stephen Harper and his crew.
Before they spoke, both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were honoured in a blanketing ceremony, something that at least one reporting in the room noted made them both visibly emotional. It is words like the ones above, and the actions in that ceremony, that give you a window into why so many Indigenous leaders were upset and dismayed by this whole fiasco, what happened with Jody Wilson-Raybould and the moving on Jane Philpott. Both of these MPs got it, they understood the relationship, what it could be, what that would take and they built the lasting relationships with Indigenous leaders, government and peoples all over.
And this was all before the keynote address, one that was sharp, insightful and unsparing in it’s truth telling. Entitled “From denial to recognition: the challenges of Indigenous justice”, this keynote address didn’t pull any punches and made many things clear. Wilson-Raybould criticized the current Liberal government for their approach to Indigenous peoples, and the lack of urgency to move to resolve these issues. Or as she put it, it was “not fast enough, nor as well co-ordinated as it should be”. While many of her words would sting in the ears of the current government, there was one line that leapt out at me for many reasons:
“My fear and disappointment is that despite sounding the alarm, providing the advice, pushing and challenging, sharing perspectives of lived Indigenous experience… the federal government has fallen back once again into a pattern of trying to ‘manage the problem’ with Indigenous peoples and make incremental shifts rather than transforming the status quo,”https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/wilson-raybould-slams-feds-for-incremental-progress-on-indigenous-rights-recognition-1.4393539
“Managing the problem”, wow, that’s far from the relationship that the Prime Minister promised when he was on the campaign trail in 2015. I still remember Justin Trudeau’s speech at the Assembly of First Nations General Assembly in July of 2015. I was there with Tom Mulcair and my boss at the time, as Tom spoke before Justin. In that speech we heard Justin Trudeau say things that the he had never said before and started to use language that he simply refused to before this, things that the NDP had been saying for many years. He spoke of a true “Nation to Nation” relationship, as Indigenous peoples had told us they wanted, as the NDP had pledged to (and still do). As he went further and further into the speech the cynic in me wondered if he really understood what he was pledging to, if he was making a cynical play for votes or if he was being sincere.
I didn’t leave that ballroom that day with a firm judgement but after the election and in the first months of their government, I believed the sincerity. Many Indigenous peoples did, and given the choice the people had made, many of us decided to put disbelief aside and give this a chance. And that lasted for a bit, but over time, that eroded and wore away. When you hear what Jody Wilson-Raybould said today, you got the feeling she had a similar feeling, except she had a front row seat for the entire episode. The party that promised transformational change and claimed they had learned from mistakes of the past during an election, was then trying to “manage the problem”, just like Red and Blue Team governments have done for generations. That’s hard to watch up close, with your name and reputation attached to it.
In her part of the speech, Jane Philpott gave a perspective and comments that I think that many more people around Canada need to hear. She pointed out that while progress has been made, it’s not nearly enough. She said that “we have a long way to go to convince all Canadians of the urgent need for reconciliation”, which I would argue this episode has shown. It’s reflections like these that show how Philpott “got it” and why Indigenous peoples were so dismayed to see her shuffle in January.
Philpott also made another comment, about one things she’s learned from the whole SNC/PMO scandal; “Ottawa is not entirely ready for people who approach leadership and responsibility from different world views.” She also said of their critics that they have “failed to realize that the way things have always been done may not meet the standard for what Canadians expect from their political leaders.” Having spent time working on Parliament Hill as a Métis person for nine years, I can heartily agree with these statements. And the thing is, I would not argue these problems come from malice; I honestly think that political Ottawa and the workings of government haven’t gotten their collective heads around dealing with new people coming into the system from such different backgrounds and perspectives. That’s one of the reasons why the whole concept of doing things the way that they’ve always been done or “business as usual” really doesn’t work in this environment in 2019. It takes time, understanding and patience, and just like in any workplace, some people are better at that then others.
But in the end, I found this speech and these comments to be very insightful, timely and full of messages that go beyond the words that they spoke. They are words that show the greater problem the Liberal government faces today, and not just when it comes to getting re-elected. Today gave you a good glimpse into the scope of the damage the SNC/PMO scandal has done to the Liberals and their standing with the coalition that elected them in 2015. It also shows who really is seen to have the credibility in this story, and it’s not the Prime Minister.
Finally, with their cutting comments about the governments approach to Indigenous peoples and reconciliation, the PM has been further laid bare on this issue. These are two MPs who were the governments point people on leading these issues, and they told the tale of how they were held back from fulfilling the promises they made. They didn’t accept their cabinet roles to simply “manage the problem”; they knew their job was to deliver much more than that. In the end, the irony is that today it looks like the greater problem in need of management might have been in the PMO all along. I’m sure that they have a third party manager on speed dial to help them with that.