Justin Trudeau and Carolyn Bennett. Image: Justin Trudeau/Flickr

In the aftermath of the discovery of 751 more unmarked Indigenous children’s and adults’ graves on the grounds of the former Marieval residential “school,” Indigenous MP Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke out.

She said it was time for meaningful government action, not an unnecessary early election.

Almost immediately, Justin Trudeau’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett responded churlishly with a one-word text to Wilson-Raybould: “Pension?”

MPs need to serve at least six years to qualify for a pension, and Wilson-Raybould was first elected in October 2015. You can do the math. If we have an election before October 15 of this year Wilson-Raybould will not qualify for the pension.

Having first been elected in 1997, Bennett qualified for her pension years ago.

Wilson-Raybould did not take her former cabinet colleague’s snipe lying down. In reply, she tweeted:

“Racist & misogynist text from Carolyn Bennett. Reflects notion that Indigenous peoples are lazy & only want money. Shows disregard, disdain, & disrespect for Indigenous peoples.”

The independent MP for Vancouver Granville said Bennett’s disdainful comment conveys the notion “a strong Indigenous woman is a bad Indigenous woman.”

Calls for Bennett to resign

Almost immediately after Wilson-Raybould made the exchange public, calls for her resignation started coming from all sides of the political spectrum.

Trudeau has remained loyal to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan throughout the current controversy over sexual abuse in the military, and, so far, is sticking by Carolyn Bennett, who has been on this file since 2015.

Of particular note is the call from the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. In an open letter to Bennett, it wrote:

“Instead of heeding MP Wilson-Raybould’s message with the seriousness warranted… you decided to lash out with a colonizer’s tongue…[Y]ou not only decided to perpetuate a damaging racial stereotype, that Indigenous peoples are lazy and only financially motivated, but dismissed the pressing, overarching issue of residential schools, missing and murdered children, and Indigenous rights … [I]mplying MP Wilson-Raybould’s fight for equality and justice is only motivated by a pension is categorically untrue … MP Wilson-Raybould is a strong … Indigenous woman who has … faced unwarranted attempts to discredit and tear down her reputation …”

When you are a minister and the people whom you are supposed to look out for utterly lose confidence in you, it is hard to see how you can carry on.

The B.C. Chiefs make that point crystal clear:

“[As] Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations [you have] a mandate…to protect and advance Indigenous title, rights, and welfare…[It is unacceptable that you] would resort to a low-handed attempt to…insult an Indigenous woman and fellow Member of Parliament.”

Professional image experts and Liberal operatives are likely now advising both Trudeau and Bennett to sit tight and see if the current storm blows over quickly. The news cycle shifts quickly these days. Folks might soon forget, if not forgive, the minister’s one-word insult.

Bennett’s value as Crown-Indigenous relations minister

Voters would do well to remember not only this incident, but to carefully examine Carolyn Bennett’s record since taking on this new job, heading a new ministry.

Bennett has succeeded in negotiating a few small-bore agreements with individual First Nations bands. But the government has done nothing systemic to reform the ongoing colonial relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples.

Indeed, whenever major resource projects are on the table, trans-national corporations can count on willing partners in both the provincial and federal governments.

The three normally collude to pressure small, under-resourced First Nations bands to accept vague promises of jobs and benefits, with no co-ownership, no meaningful partnership, and not a penny of royalties.

Bennett has done precious little to change that relationship.

In fairness to the Crown-Indigenous relations minister, she has had scant support from the power centres in the federal government — such as in the finance, treasury board, natural resources and industry ministries, and in the privy council and prime minister’s offices.

That, more than one verbal insult, might be a good reason for Bennett to resign.

Wilson-Raybould would not be bullied by Trudeau’s palace guard

Wilson-Raybould is the only Indigenous woman ever to hold the position of federal Justice Minister. Justin Trudeau named her to that job after the 2015 election.

But before the next election in 2019 Wilson-Raybould quit to sit as an independent. It was one of the many consequences of the notorious SNC-Lavalin affair.

That scandal centred on a federal prosecution of a Montreal-based engineering firm for corruption of foreign public officials.

Justin Trudeau and his then advisers feared a criminal conviction would severely damage SNC-Lavalin, which has almost iconic status in Quebec. More to the point, Liberals feared political damage to their party with an election looming.

Trudeau’s palace guard considered their options and believed they found a way out. The government could offer SNC-Lavalin something called a deferred prosecution coupled with a “remediation agreement.” The company would agree to make amends and change its ways, but would not suffer the potentially fatal consequences of a criminal conviction.

As though by happy coincidence, the government had slipped legislation making remediation agreements possible in the previous year’s budget implementation bill. It’s a legislative trick they learned from the Harper government, which they had promised never to use.

Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould would not play ball, however. She refused to interfere in what she considered to be an independent prosecution.

Trudeau’s senior officials — including former clerk of the privy council Michael Wernick and former principal secretary Gerald Butts — put intense pressure on her, but she was unmovable.

And so, the Liberal palace guard’s solution was to shuffle Wilson-Raybould out of the justice job and replace her with a more compliant minister.

The Vancouver Indigenous MP did not last long in her new job at Veterans’ Affairs. She quit when many of the less savory details of the SNC-Lavalin story became public. In the subsequent election Wilson-Raybould ran as an independent, and won.

Throughout the entire affair, Liberals’ public stance toward Jody Wilson-Raybould has been hands-off.

Early in the scandal, Trudeau would casually, and, to the ears of some, condescendingly, refer to Wilson-Raybould as “Jody.” He cut that out quickly, and has never since had a disparaging word to say (publicly) about his former star minister.

Bennett’s mean-spirited text was definitely not in the official Liberal party playbook. When Wilson-Raybould made it public, Bennett apologized almost immediately.

Unjustified early election

The fact that Bennett expressed herself the way she did is not a coincidence however. It reflects the Liberals’ deep discomfort with the fact they are preparing for an entirely unjustified early election.

The prime minister has tried to prepare the ground by prattling, unconvincingly, about a toxic atmosphere in parliament and opposition obstructionism.

The fact is that with constructive, if critical, support from the NDP the Liberals have been able to govern effectively during the deep crisis created by the pandemic. What Trudeau really means when he says “toxic” is that the Liberals have been forced to answer tough questions in parliament about their various scandals and missteps.

A few Ottawa opinion writers, notably the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, have lined up behind the Liberals. She wrote a column headlined “If these are the last days of Canada’s 43rd Parliament, then good riddance.”

Delacourt’s tepid support for Trudeau’s election mongering is based on a largely irrelevant historic fact and on an entirely unsupported assumption.

The fact is that two years is the average life of a minority government in Canada. There is no rule that minorities cannot not last longer, however. A few have, some as long as three years.

The unsupported assumption is that “Canadians are ready to move one.”

Which Canadians has Delacourt has been talking to? This writer has not heard any enthusiasm for an early election from anyone.

Few, if any, other commentators on federal affairs concur with Delacourt. Both CTV’s Don Martin and the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson have scoffed at Trudeau’s barely concealed plans to precipitate an early election.

Both believe Trudeau would be unwise to count on winning a majority, notwithstanding recent opinion polls. One of them points to Trudeau’s near-blind loyalty to his old friends, such as the WE organization’s Kielburger brothers, as his Achilles heel.

Will Trudeau continue to show such loyalty to Bennett?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter

Image: Justin Trudeau/Flickr

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...