Jody Wilson-Raybould: The Seventh Federal Party Leader

Observing the dramatic trajectory of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s (JWR’s) ministerial career leads me to consider a counter-factual. How would it have played out in a proportional representation legislature, like Israel’s Knesset or Denmark’s Borgen?

Under proportional representation, Canada would likely have an Indigenous People’s Party (IPP). With 1.6 million Canadians of indigenous background, or 5 percent of our total population, we could expect the IPP to win that share of the popular vote and between 15 and 20 seats in the current House. It would likely be comparable to the Green Party, which consistently wins 5 percent of the popular vote.

As an articulate, experienced, and accomplished advocate for Indigenous Canadians, JWR would likely be the leader of the IPP. (John Geddes’s profile in Macleans before the SNC-Lavallin Affair makes clear the depth of her experience, extent of her commitment, and nature of her vision). The IPP would want to become part of the governing coalition and, when a government is being formed after an election, would get the Conservatives and Liberals to bid for its support. I expect the IPP would find a greater affinity with the Liberals than the Conservatives.

What portfolio would JWR, as the IPP’s leader, want? The question answers itself: Indigenous Affairs, because in that position she could do the most good for Indigenous Canadians, including transforming the Indian Act. Her political agenda would be clear to all parliamentarians and commentators and no one would be surprised by her dedication to that agenda above all else.

Of course, we don’t have proportional representation and, given the failure of the Trudeau Government’s efforts at parliamentary reform, we can expect to have First Past the Post (FPTP) for the foreseeable future.

In our system of “big tent” governing parties, cabinets are expected to encompass the diversity of Canadian society along numerous dimensions (gender, region, and ethnicity). While ministers represent those dimensions, they are also expected to make decisions on the basis of the public interest of Canadian society as a whole. Certainly that is true of the most senior ministries, such as Global Affairs, Finance, and Justice. Allan Blakeney, premier of Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982, with whom I co-authored the book Political Management in Canada, recalled often telling his ministers to take the broader province-wide perspective with the admonition “we have too many advocates here, and not enough judges.”

In my view, JWR was doing two jobs in cabinet, first minister of Justice and second, unofficial leader of the IPP. Daniel Leblanc’s article about her attempt to advance the careers of indigenous judges and Gloria Galloway’s article about her turf fight with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett over the appropriate framework for indigenous rights show her playing the second role (and in both cases losing the battle). I think this is what her detractors meant when they hinted darkly about her not playing well with others. This likely would not have been said about her in a proportional representation system.

I think her unwillingness to accommodate her cabinet colleagues in the SNC-Lavallin Affair was at least partially a result of her frustrations as unofficial leader of the IPP. Her texts to Gerald Butts when Justin Trudeau was discussing a cabinet shuffle in which she would leave Justice clearly show her perspective:

“This is not about me – believe me when I say this – but this is about an approach to Indigenous Peoples. This situation is only going to deepen and I am very worried about it. I am getting texts/emails from indig leaders and B.C. etc. Just felt I had to text.”

What could Trudeau have done differently so that JWR’s career trajectory didn’t end in expulsion from the Liberal caucus? Geddes’s article tells us that Trudeau met her and had a long one-on-one talk with her before recruiting her as a candidate in the 2015 election. He must have known where she was coming from and how she wanted to do politics differently. In his original cabinet in 2015, he could have offered her Indigenous Affairs with a mandate for comprehensive change, and it is unlikely she would have refused the portfolio then. It was a mistake to first put her in one of the most senior portfolios, as well as the only portfolio that has a legal basis (the role of attorney general in overseeing the federal courts) for refusing to accept collegial or even prime ministerial guidance.

In the January 2019 cabinet shuffle, Trudeau could have offered JWR President of the Treasury Board, replacing Scott Brison. It would not have been seen as a demotion from Justice in the way Veterans’ Affairs was. I’ll quote again from Allan Blakeney:

“I sometimes put a minister who had potential, but who was too focused on his department, on Treasury Board for at least one budget round so that he could be exposed to public servants – and sometimes ministers – who believed as strongly in the overriding importance of their programs as he did in his. If travel is broadening, so is service on the Treasury Board during a budget round.”

As unofficial leader of the IPP, JWR certainly did politics differently. All of Trudeau’s other ministers, whether men or women, understood that they were part of a team, in their portfolios at the pleasure of the prime minister, and remained part of the team whether promoted, demoted, or moved out of cabinet entirely. That includes Stephane Dion, John McCallum, and MaryAnn Mihychuk (all dropped from cabinet); Carolyn Bennett, whose original portfolio was split and she was given half; Maryam Monsef, initially appointed Minister for Democratic Institutions, demoted to Minister for the Status of Women, and then promoted to Minister for International Development; and Melanie Joly, first appointed Minister of Canadian Heritage and then demoted to Minister of Tourism. In every case, after they were reassigned, they remained loyal and carried on with their new positions.

Jane Philpott deserves an entire blog post, but I will give her only a paragraph. Her politics seem motivated by a deep sense of ideological and personal loyalty to JWR. She too did politics differently, namely as BFF. I find it striking that there are so many photos of JWR looking at the camera and Jane Philpott looking at JWR. The nature of her loyalty ensured that her career trajectory mirrored JWR’s. How Philpott explains this to the voters of Markham-Stoufville, who sent her to Parliament to represent their interests, remains to be seen.

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