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SNC-Lavalin affair could turn Indigenous votes away from the Liberals, national chief warns

The SNC-Lavalin affair and Jody Wilson-Raybould’s exit from the federal Liberal caucus will factor into the choices Indigenous voters make in the fall election, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Friday.

Earlier this year, the former minister of justice and attorney general said she was inappropriately pressured by high-level government officials to intervene in the criminal prosecution of the Quebec construction company on corruption charges in order to allow it to avoid trial.

In the aftermath of that allegation, Wilson-Raybould and then-Treasury Board secretary Jane Philpott quit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, top Prime Minister’s Office official Gerry Butts resigned and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick stepped down. The two women were later booted out of the party caucus.

“That’s something that comes into play,” Bellegarde said in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House, responding to questions about whether the government’s treatement of Wilson-Raybould — its most prominent Indigenous representative at the time — will have an impact on Indigenous voters.

“The whole issue with SNC-Lavalin is an issue, no question.”

The Liberals made significant gains among Indigenous voters in the 2015 federal election. In polling divisions located on First Nations reserves, the party captured 40.5 per cent of the vote — an increase of nearly 28 percentage points over 2011.

However, a CBC News poll suggests the governing party has lost a chunk of that support.

Praise, then criticism

Many Indigenous leaders and groups commended Trudeau for appointing Wilson-Raybould as attorney general and justice minister in 2015. She was the first Indigenous person to hold that office in Canada.

After the SNC-Lavalin debacle, many of those same groups publicly raised concerns about how she was treated.

Terry Teegee, British Columbia regional chief of the AFN, said the prime minister’s decision to kick Wilson-Raybould and Philpott out of caucus showed a “deeply flawed and dishonest intent” behind the Liberals’ reconciliation agenda.

Trudeau has said no relationship is more important to him and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.

However, the stigma from the SNC-Lavalin affair appears to be lingering among Indigenous voters.

A package of issues

In the CBC polling, two issues stand out as significant drivers of the Liberals’ loss of Indigenous support. Just 25 per cent say Trudeau has done very or fairly well in improving the welfare and living conditions of Indigenous people, while 46 per cent say they are “very angry” at the removal of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from the Liberal caucus.

“It will hurt the Liberals, I’m sure, in some cases,” Bellegarde said.

But the national chief also cautioned against making the SNC-Lavalin drama the deciding factor on election day.

“I’d encourage people to look at the overall things and not just look at one individual item or one individual thing.

Bellegarde encouraged voters to also consider such political issues as climate change, the need to close the quality-of-life gap between Indigenous Canadians and everyone else, and the quest for better treatment for Indigenous people in the justice system.

“They’re not just First Nations issues. They’re really Canadian issues.”

In the end, he said, reconciliation isn’t going to happen with one person, but every small decision along the way counts.

“We’ve got to keep building on the successes and making sure we maintain momentum.”

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