Just Barely a Democracy – Patriarchy, Colonialism, and Power

Cover of Indian in the Cabinet by Jody Wilson-Rayboud with a photo of her on the cover.

First, some apologies to my Liberal friends. Well, maybe not apologies. More like an expression of compassion and understanding that you may not want to hear some harsh words about and from Jody Wilson-Raybauld. I can only imagine that some of what she says in her book Indian in the Cabinet would be hard for loyal Liberals to read. Despite the discomfort, you may want to read it anyway.

On the other hand, to my Indigenous friends, to the women in my life, and to anyone who cares about improving Canada’s democracy, I highly recommend the book.

Wilson-Raybould’s book covers a lot of ground. She has had a long history of being a leader in Indigenous communities and organizations. She joined the Liberals in 2015 at the request of Justin Trudeau and had high hopes for bringing some real change to the relationship between the Canadian Government and Indigenous communities. As most people will probably remember, that ended as a result of the SNC-Lavalin Affair. She doesn’t discuss all the grim details because much of them were already publicized, and, in fact, because she is still guided by Cabinet privilege, she can’t talk a lot about what went on.

Despite that absence of details on SNC, it is a fascinating book and, maybe I’m kinda geeky, but I found it was a real page-turner because she meshes the political machinations, personal feelings, and cultural perspectives into a tight narrative.

Consensus Building

One of the things that most stood out to me, and I’m sure to JWR, is that her experience in Indigenous circles, whether in local communities, or in larger national organizations, was that the way to do politics is to seek consensus. It is hard work, but necessary work, to bring people together to create buy-in and build good solutions.

Apparently, she was quite taken aback with how little of this there is in Canadian politics. This is something Elizabeth May has expressed growing concern about. Her book Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada discussed the growing control that the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) held over not just the government members but the work of Parliamentary Committees. Stephen Harper took steps to control the outcome of committee work by using tools such as filibuster. Trudeau (or his handlers – we don’t really even know because of the secrecy and control of the PMO) has gone to similar lengths to control committees and secure outcomes that align with the Liberal Party’s political goals.

Politics vs Governance

When JWR first arrived in Ottawa as the Minister of Justice, she managed to get a few projects pushed through including Medically Assisted Dying and some criminal justice reform. When it came time to work on her core mission of reframing how the Justice Department would deal with Indigenous Issues (a complex question. Read the book. Or the TRC Report), there was less interest in moving forward, even thought it had been promised, coming from the PMO.

There was a culture shift, about a year in to the mandate, to start focusing on re-election strategies. That meant that projects that were not obvious vote winners (called “red-meat” issues) were to be avoided.

I hated the term then, and still do. The whole idea of it. Not acting on critical issues, urgent issues, because of a fear of losing votes. It remains so wrong. How will things change if this is the culture of our politics?

Jody Wilson-Raybould, Indian in the Cabinet

JWR’s first run-ins with Gerry Butts started around this time. She wanted to move forward on making substantive and constructive changes on Indigenous – Canada relationships and she was getting more and more pushback from the PMO. It was becoming clear that while the public face of the Liberal Party was selling reconciliation, the internal politics were stuck on business-as-usual.

It is clear that the Liberals, as is likely with the Conservatives before them, and as with every PMO since Pierre Trudeau, are more concerned about the politics of winning elections, and retaining power, than actually providing bold and intelligent governance.

Power vs Democracy

JWR expresses a great deal of dismay and surprise at the power structures in Cabinet and the relationship of Ministers with the PMO. The fact that as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, she could not directly contact Justin Trudeau without going through Gerald Butts and other PMO handlers, is a clear indication of the broken power structures in Canadian Democracy. At one point she even suggests that it was discouraged for Cabinet Ministers to talk to each other without going through the administrative structures in the PMO.

When things unravelled with SNC-Lavalin, JWR was shuffled to Indigenous Services (formerly Indigenous and Norther Affairs). She had made it quite clear, before she ran, that she could never be the Minister in charge of the Indian Act. And yet here they were – the ultimate virtue signal to put an Indigenous person into the position of being an Indian Agent. A politically expedient decision, that couldn’t even respect her expertise and experience as an Indigenous person. And one that shows a clear disconnect between the thinking in the PMO and the lives of real people.

There was little that could be done on the pivotal priorities that had brought me to Ottawa originally. At what point was I just staying for the wrong reasons: for power, prestige, a role? Acting like a “politician” in the worst sense of the term.

JWR, Indian in the Cabinet

Canada is Broken

At least, according to Pierre Poilievre. I don’t agree with Poilievre. I actually think we’ve got a lot of great things going. Ironically, the one thing that Poilievre is relying on to be the next Prime Minister is a tired and broken electoral system that supports a highly partisan and paternalistic Parliament.

It is barely a democracy where we can install a Prime Minister who has 100% of the power with a vote of 39% of votes (and 20% of eligible voters). When that power is further imposed on Cabinet Ministers, forcing them to focus on getting elected again instead of serving the country, and when MPs are mostly reduced to salesmen for (or against) the party in power, the system is utterly broken.

They had failed at public humiliation (and had humiliated themselves somewhat), so public shunning was what they had left. In addition to just walking away from us, there were glares and snide comments under their breath. This behaviour just reinforced what Jane (Philpot) and I had increasingly come to recognize: excessive partisanship is corroding truth and humanness in our politics. The Liberals were proving it.

JWR, Indian in the Cabinet

When really brilliant people Jody Wilson-Raybould (and numerous others for that matter) get shuffled off because they won’t follow the directives of unelected Party administrators, we lose. We lose their experience, their intelligence, their leadership.

Change is Overdue

While I think we’ve got a lot of great things going, everything is not perfect. The housing crisis and affordability crisis. Inequity is growing. The drug crisis. Meanwhile, the existential threat of climate change is looming over everything; if we do not get a handle on this problem, the other issues will seem trivial.

Trudeau and Poilievre and all their various political handlers are not going to solve these problems alone while sitting insulated in the ivory tower of the PMO. We are going to need loads of smart people coming together to make hard decisions and develop creative solutions without worrying about the next election cycle. We cannot afford to create more partisanship and more secrecy while alienating more people from the political process.

Trudeau broke his promise to “Make 2015 the last unfair election”. It is clear, while JWR, doesn’t directly refer to it, that Trudeau never had any intention of surrendering any power. And with that lie, we all lose.

I am at times more upset, frustrated, and even angry today about what I saw while I was in government than I was when it was all happening. Why? Because it simply is not good enough. We can do better. And guess what? We had better do better or the result could be catastrophic.

JWR, Indian in the Cabinet

Cross Posted from Green Party Lac du Bonnet

Note: In case anyone is wondering, I use the The Storygraph, which I support through an annual subscription, for referencing books. It is an independent bookshelf tracking software. Goodreads is owned by Amazon and I’d rather not give them my reading data.

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