By any measure, this has been a momentous week for Indigenous women in Canada.
The country is about to have its first Indigenous governor general: Mary Simon. The Assembly of First Nations will be led for the first time in its history by a woman chief: RoseAnne Archibald.
And Jody Wilson-Raybould, a woman who could have been a serious candidate for either of those jobs at one time, has announced she is leaving politics and won’t be running in the next election. So ends the political career of Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, who says there is a next chapter awaiting her — just not inside the walls of Parliament.
It would be fascinating to put these three women in a room and hear them talk about the soul-searching that led to the place where they all arrived this week. Simon and Archibald took a journey to the top of institutions formerly closed to them; Wilson-Raybould, who once took that trip herself, opted for the exit ramp.
All three are entering — or exiting — very different spheres of influence within this country. Simon will not run the state, but she represents the Queen, the head of state, and her power is more than merely symbolic. It is in Simon’s hands to open and close Parliament, for instance.
Archibald isn’t entering government, but the task falls to her to forge relationships between governments and Indigenous people. As outgoing chief Perry Bellegarde told me a couple of weeks ago, the prime job of the AFN leader is to represent First Nations to non-Indigenous people; to simultaneously court influence and build it for Indigenous people within the corridors of power.
Wilson-Raybould is the only one of the three women who has actually served inside those hallways and no doubt has warnings to the other two about what they’re getting into.
What if the former justice minister had been offered the governor general’s post, for instance? Leaving aside the dismal state of relations between her and the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau — which makes the prospect a non-starter — there would also be the not-small consideration of whether Wilson-Raybould would have wanted to serve as representative of the Crown.
We will recall that Wilson-Raybould not only refused, but was insulted by the offer of the Indigenous Services post in Trudeau’s cabinet in the weeks before her 2019 resignation as a minister. Like “asking Nelson Mandela to administer apartheid,” one of Wilson-Raybould’s staunch allies said when that news emerged.
“Asking her to administer the Indian Act is not only inappropriate, it is deeply humiliating,” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, said at the time.
Turpel-Lafond did not see Simon’s appointment this week as a possible conflict between the Crown and Indigenous people, but there is historic tension to manage there, as my colleague Tonda MacCharles reported in the days before Simon was announced as the next GG.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has clearly seen this week as good news and bad news for Indigenous women. In a statement from the organization’s CEO, Lynn Groulx, NWAC addressed the ambivalence Indigenous women might be feeling about Simon electing to head one “colonial” institution while Wilson-Raybould was leaving another.
“Some have been asking us why we would want Indigenous women to hold senior positions in what remains a colonially structured government. The answer is that this is the system of government we’ve got until we have full self-determination, and we must find ways to work within it to help our people in every way we can,” Groulx’s statement said.
Wilson-Raybould’s departure follows that of NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, whose exit speech in the Commons last month was a damning indictment of an institution she still found closed to her. Both women cast the current Commons as dysfunctional, even hostile to women like them. “There is nothing — nothing — to take pride in in the legacy this institution continues to not only maintain, but to build and fuel,” Qaqqaq said in her speech.
“Federal politics is, in my view, increasingly a disgraceful triumph of harmful partisanship over substantive action,” Wilson-Raybould said in her resignation letter.
One week, no matter how momentous, doesn’t immediately settle all the questions of where Indigenous women fit in the future of the country. The entrance of Simon and Archibald will be celebrated, but also tempered by what Wilson-Raybould had to say on her way out. It is evidence that getting the big jobs isn’t the end of the story.
For the history books and Indigenous women, then, it will be the week of two big steps forward and one step back, which is a net gain.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt