Party of two: Wilson-Raybould, Philpott provide Liberals with ethics lesson

Political Opinion - Niigaan Sinclair

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WINNIPEG – VIEWPOINT – After Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from the Liberal cabinet on Feb. 12, Treasury Board president and fellow Liberal MP Jane Philpott tweeted out praise for her: “You taught me so much — particularly about Indigenous history, rights and justice. I’m proud of the laws we worked on together — C14 (assisted dying), C37 (harm reduction), C45 (public health approach to cannabis) and so much more. I know you will continue to serve Canadians.”

The two were known to have a close relationship, and a strong political track record.

On Monday, Philpott resigned from cabinet, explaining on Twitter she had “lost confidence” in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. affair.

“Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former attorney general to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts, have raised serious concerns for me.”

Then, as if echoing the concluding words Wilson-Raybould used during her testimony at the justice committee last week, Philpott tweeted: “I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities and constitutional obligations. There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”

This comes after days of Liberal attacks on Wilson-Raybould. Since her testimony, she has been subject to Liberal MPs calling her incompetent, “not a team player,” and inconsistent. Some Liberal-allied Indigenous leaders called her an impediment to reconciliation who acted out of “ego” and “hurt feelings.”

Philpott’s resignation is a refusal to join in and a message of solidarity with Wilson-Raybould. It also signals a massive — and ironic — problem the Trudeau government has on the issue of ethics and principles.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau rode a message of ethics and principles all the way to the prime minister’s office. He promised a “different way” to doing politics, especially in comparison to outgoing Tory prime minister Stephen Harper.

He vowed to treat Indigenous peoples fairly. He committed to gender parity in cabinet: “It’s 2015,” he announced, responding to a question about having an equal number of male and female appointees.

Well, it’s 2019 now, and questions surrounding ethics and principles may just be what removes Trudeau from the prime minister’s office.

At the centre of this is the treatment of women and Indigenous peoples.

SNC-Lavalin has been accused of offering $47 million of bribes to Libyan officials and allegedly defrauding Libyan public agencies of $129 million from 2001 to 2011.

A significant part of this was due to the company’s relationship with Saadi Gaddafi, son of dictator Muammar Gaddafi (who was killed in 2011). According to a recent story by Montreal’s La Presse, SNC-Lavalin maintained this relationship by giving the younger Gaddafi millions in kickbacks, hiring his wife, and paying for prostitutes.

Libyan officials have a long track record in mistreating women — issues that contributed to the 2011 revolution and plagued the post-revolution society since.

Trudeau may speak about saving “jobs” for SNC-Lavalin, but what kind of ethics and principles do the federal Liberals support? Jobs and governments that condone the exploitation of women?

Philpott was not only a strong voice for women but the first Indigenous services minister. Her shuffling to the Treasury Board in January was met with great disappointment by Indigenous leaders and communities, who genuinely thought she did a good job on issues involving child welfare, water, and more.

Were relationships with Indigenous peoples sacrificed because Philpott supported Wilson-Raybould behind closed cabinet doors? It now may seem so.

Wilson-Raybould, while justice minister and attorney general, was the de facto minister of Indigenous affairs without the name. She represented the government at the Assembly of First Nations and was a lead writer and thinker on virtually every Indigenous policy.

She also never left her Kwakwaka’wakw identity behind, refusing to give up the values of her “big house” ceremonies and traditions, which dictate people and relationships take precedence over money and power. She brought these ethics and principles — relationships, land, and people matter, not corporations — to Canada’s House.

And, as a result of who she is, Wilson-Raybould was belittled, defamed, and attacked.

“Reconciliation” is easy when Indigenous peoples “get over” being Indigenous. Only that’s not reconciliation; that’s just assimilation.

Now we have come to Trudeau’s biggest dilemma of them all, the largest and most significant question of his ethics and principles: do you throw Philpott and Wilson-Raybould out of the Liberal party?

Many in the party will say they can’t speak openly with the two around, they don’t trust them, or the party can’t operate with such disunity.

The fact is Philpott and Wilson-Raybould may be the two most ethical Liberal politicians ever. By tossing them out, whatever moral compass the party has left will go with it.

The most remarkable thing of all: both want to stay. They’re politicians, of course. They want to be employed and the Liberal party probably gives them their best option. But it’s more then that.

They may believe in relationships, even when there is so much evidence this government doesn’t.

They may believe in reconciliation. If there’s anything women and Indigenous peoples teach this country is immense generosity, kindness, and incredible patience — even when it is rarely returned.

They may even see hope in a prime minister who, at one time, seemed to have interest in doing the right things but lost his way so long ago.

Maybe too long ago.

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on February 28, 2019. Republished with the permission of the author