Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party made two fateful mistakes in the appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould.
First, they underestimated her commitment to the law and her ethical framework that put the law before political expedience. Second, they didn’t realize that she came to government with an Indigenous agenda that superseded party politics.
Indigenous people have an interesting relationship with party politics; we see it as a means to an end and not an end in itself. We don’t regard political parties as our institutions but as non-Indigenous vehicles that can be used to meet our needs. This drives party hacks up the wall — they regard our party affiliation as shallow and superficial, and you know what? They’re right.
The loyalties of First Nations people extend from family to community and nation. By nation I am not referring to Canada but to our nations — Cree, Anishinaabe, Saksika, Nakota and so on. Anything else follows.
When our people enter the ring of partisan politics, it is usually because they have an agenda and want to make change. This might mean changing parties to accomplish it.
When Wilson-Raybould spoke out about First Nations–Canada relations she was admonished by Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. He told her it wasn’t government policy. He was the former Deputy Minister of Indigenous Affairs and he had his own unwritten agenda, but that never came out.
To Wilson-Raybould the legal relations between Canada and the First Nations include the constitution, the Crown, the treaties and so on. These are the bedrock legal instruments that define our relationship and don’t need to be policy.
Other of our politicians have switched parties and put their people first.
Joan Beatty was a cabinet minister in the Calvert government in Saskatchewan, holding the posts of youth, culture and recreation and provincial secretary. After two terms in office she ran federally for the Liberals, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
Elijah Harper sat in the provincial legislature in Manitoba and did the famous act of denying unanimous consent to the adoption of the Meech Lake accord. Later he would switch parties and run for the Liberals in his provincial constituency.
Here in Saskatchewan, former FSIN chief Lawrence Joseph has run federally for both the Liberals and the NDP. Last year there was a joke going around that he planned to run as a Conservative so he could say he ran for all three parties.
But over the years our people have supported political parties because of the actions of the party leader or a local politician. For example, Tommy Douglas provided support for the Union of Saskatchewan Indians at their founding convention, a first at the time. He was honoured and supported at the ballot box for his friendship with the leaders in the reserves around Prince Albert. When John Diefenbaker extended the voting franchise and appointed James Gladstone from Alberta to the Senate, his stock in Indian Country soared.
On the other hand, after the Liberals presented the 1969 white paper on Indian Affairs, it took years for them to gain any voting foothold in Indian Country.
Last fall when Andrew Scheer addressed the chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations, he was booed during the question and answer session. Scheer was unable to state how his policies would differ from Harper’s and how he could rebuild trust in Indian Country.
Our elders have counselled us against partisan politics. John Tootoosis, a revered senator and elder, never cast a ballot in a federal or provincial election in his life. He saw partisan politics as a threat to our treaty rights and our sovereignty.
Over the years the position has become more fluid with increased participation at the ballot box, but the issues are much different from the mainstream and often not addressed by the various candidates.
At the conclusion of her testimony to the justice committee, Jody Wilson-Raybould said, “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am and who I will always be.”
I think that defines our relationship with partisan politics.