As pre-election cabinet shuffles go, Justin Trudeau’s was a weird one.
The demotion – and that is the most polite word one can use – of Vancouver’s Jody Wilson-Raybould from the politically vital justice portfolio to the political graveyard of veterans affairs is an acutely awkward message at an extraordinarily pivotal time.
It reinforces the cliché that this is a government willing to eschew operational competence for the vortex of optics, and that it has no long-term stomach to deal with slow-moving issues like First Nations reconcilation.
Behind the scenes there may be an entirely different story, but the public appearance is punitive of accomplishment and rewarding of personal friendship.
It is fair to say that Wilson-Raybould, the most senior Indigenous minister in history, is by almost anyone’s account difficult to deal with.
The same can be said of many top performers across all walks of life.
In three short years in a portfolio historically molasses-slow, she legalized medically assisted death, did the same with cannabis, defined the government’s First Nations principles and retooled the judiciary. Trudeau’s own father, no slouch in that portfolio, would have been dazzled.
She did not misspeak, mislead or mishandle a single file. She had many opportunities to distance and detach from government fumbles on issues near and dear, but she stood solidly. In those regards alone, she deserved to stay in the role until at least the autumn election.
In symbolic terms – and this is a government all about symbols – she was a signal accomplishment in Trudeau’s oft-stated priority of demonstrating the importance of Indigeneity in our institutions. Today it is harder to believe this is his most important relationship.
It is no knock on her successor, David Lametti, an accomplished legal scholar from Quebec, where the Liberals must dominate in the fall. But the message to take away is that Trudeau was more than delighted to get the photo opportunity for the initial appointment in 2015 but did not see her as the same crucial election asset in October that a Quebec MP might be.
In cutting her down to a lesser role and sending the signal of her declining importance, he has also exposed her to unnecessary electoral vulnerability. The Liberals are going to pay some sort of local price in Vancouver for its fight to build the Trans Mountain pipeline. Wilson-Raybould, publicly supportive of the project, now finds herself in greater political jeopardy today than at any time.
It was, one supposes, in keeping with her style that she wrote a rather tart and unorthodox departure note, highlighting the enormity of the task of reconciliation and sending a clear message that more policies and laws are needed from her government to fulfil this mission.
I cannot imagine she would be pleased about two other things: first, the appointment of former broadcaster Seamus O’Regan, a close friend of Trudeau, as the minister for Indigenous services, a natural home for her to further her delivery of social and economic justice. It must be doubly galling, too, that she replaces him in veterans affairs, where the consensus was he did not fare well. (Full disclosure: O’Regan worked for me at CTV.)
Her note on the shuffle touts the work done to date but makes clear we are far from a breakthrough in the necessary cooperation and collaboration with First Nations on the daunting files “to reset the new foundations.” An elementary interpretation of her note is that she is too far from and O’Regan too close to this giant task.
What she did to deserve this at this critical juncture, no one can say. We are thus left to criticize a government that has been exceedingly mindful of appearance and gesture for its coarse and uncouth treatment of an important figure in its success.