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This Is a Moment in Canadian Politics Indigenous People Have Been Waiting For

“I’m immensely proud to be an Aboriginal person in this country and I’m equally proud to be a Canadian,” said Jodi Wilson-Raybould, the first justice minister in Canadian history who is indigenous.

by Tamara Khandaker
Nov 5 2015, 4:00pm

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It was a day of emotional ups and downs for Michèle Audette.

At a Montreal press conference on Wednesday, she listened with a sinking feeling as politicians unveiled how they'd be responding to a scandal involving police officers in a small Quebec town, and allegations they had chronically abused indigenous women. It's the latest troubling story that has exposed the deep feelings of neglect Aboriginal people have in Canada, which is still confronting a disturbing legacy of mistreatment that sought, decades ago, to take the "Indian out of the child." 

And so, the promise of money to help address underlying societal issues specific to Aboriginal communities in Quebec was met with skepticism from Audette, a former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

But a computer screen in the vicinity offered her a glimmer of hope.

Justin Trudeau, Canada's new prime minister, was unveiling his cabinet and Carolyn Bennett, a woman she had come to respect, had been named the new minister of indigenous affairs.

Then, moments later, Audette and her colleagues found out the country's new justice minister was Jodi Wilson-Raybould, the first Aboriginal person to hold the key and high profile portfolio.

Jubilation swept over the group. Audette retreated to an alley, where she quietly wept with joy.

"For the first time in Canadian history, a prime minister is giving such a huge responsibility — it's no small responsibility — to an indigenous woman," said Audette, who was a Liberal candidate in the Quebec riding of Terrebonne and lost. "We now have an important portfolio."

Indeed, it was heralded as a watershed moment in relations between the federal government and Canada's first peoples following several fraught years under the previous Conservative government.

"I'm immensely proud to be an Aboriginal person in this country and I'm equally proud to be a Canadian," Wilson-Raybould said on Wednesday after her swearing in.

Related: 'Because It's 2015': Why Justin Trudeau Pushed for Gender Parity in His Cabinet

In addition to Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau tapped Nunavut MP Hunter TooToo to be minister of fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian coast guard. All told, 10 indigenous MPs, including eight Liberals, were elected to parliament in the October 19 election — a new record.

The surge comes after months of work by activists who were determined to bring First Nations communities, which traditionally do not vote in federal elections, to the polls by pushing key issues onto the electoral agenda.

Some communities saw voter turnout so high that they ran out of ballots. In certain ridings, the turnout increased by as much as 270 percent.

Trudeau has pledged a "renewed, nation-to-nation relationship" with indigenous people, and throughout the campaign made a number of commitments, including launching an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, investing $2.6-billion for First Nations education, and ending rampant boil water advisories on reserves within five years.

Dawn Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said the cabinet appointments signaled a new era, which is "beginning with hope."

"The Trudeau government plans to walk the talk," she said. "This is the first time I've ever seen the government truly reflect Canadian society."

Vancouver-Granville MP Wilson-Raybould is a member of the We Way Kai Nation, a former regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, and Crown prosecutor.

She has said it was a lack of cooperation from former prime minister Stephen Harper during the Idle No More protests in 2013 that pushed her to run for the Liberals in this election.

Wilson-Raybould's appointment is also significant for reasons beyond symbolism, said Harvard, citing the overrepresentation of indigenous people in prisons and a history of negative interactions between indigenous women and the justice system.

"It's because of racism and sexism, and because our people are living ... in third-world conditions and end up being pushed into vulnerable situations," she said. "The top person in that ministry being an indigenous person means those unconscious attitudes and assumptions that have prevailed for so long won't be running the show."

As minister of oceans, fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian coast guard, Hunter Tootoo, a rookie MP who served in Nunavut's legislative assembly from 1999 to 2013, has also inherited a complicated file. He'll be expected to deliver on a number of promises, including restoring funding to the federal ocean science and monitoring programs and freshwater research.

In the lead up to the cabinet unveiling, there was speculation that Trudeau would make another kind of history — by appointing the first indigenous leader at the helm of the department of aboriginal affairs. Instead, he went with Carolyn Bennett, a long-time Liberal MP for a Toronto riding, who is not indigenous but has a history of working with First Nations communities. She is also a former family doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Related: Justin Trudeau Takes Office With Canada's First-Ever Climate Change Minister

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde touted her "deep experience" and said she was an "effective and informed critic" in the previous parliament.

Harvard said Bennett has been standing with First Nations communities since long before the campaign, and that "she understands the situation, specifically with regard to missing and murdered indigenous women."

"She has been at the church meetings, at the screenings, at the fundraisers, the community meetings, so she is someone who isn't afraid to walk the talk, to stand with us, and speak up and do the right thing," said Harvard. "She has the understanding, the heart, and the commitment to do a good job."

Upon her swearing in, Bennett called herself the "minister of reconciliation."

While the numbers are record-breaking, indigenous MPs will still make up only 10 of 338 seats in the House of Commons. They represent around 4 percent of the population. 

Still, the appointments indicate a change in attitude, said Harvard.

"The diversity that is reflected around the cabinet table, in the House of Commons is incredibly empowering," said Wilson-Raybould, the justice minister. "[It] brings voices – new voices to the table for substantive discussions and debate and dialogue and different perspectives from backgrounds, but ultimately working together to move forward in terms of solutions." 

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk