OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejigged his cabinet Monday, adding two new faces and a new portfolio — and rewarding competence and friendship.
However, it was his decision to move Jody Wilson-Raybould that was all the talk in political circles, despite Trudeau's insistence that her shift from the senior justice portfolio to the junior veterans affairs post was not a demotion.
Tongues wagged even more later Monday when Wilson-Raybould took the unusual step of posting a long defence of her three years at Justice on her website, in which she hinted that she may have rubbed people the wrong way because her role as the government's lawyer required her to "speak truth to power."
Although she said she's proud to take on Veterans Affairs, Wilson-Raybould appeared to hint that she may quit politics, repeatedly thanking her supporters and constituents and even at one point saying she will continue working to build a more just Canada "whatever public or private roles I may play."
Trudeau took pains to stress the importance he puts on the veterans portfolio.
"I caution anyone who thinks that serving our veterans and making sure they get the care to which they are so justly entitled from any Canadian government is anything other than a deep and awesome responsibility," he told a news conference, saying the government owes "a sacred duty" to those who have served the country "with heroism and valour."
Trudeau praised Wilson-Raybould for overseeing legalization of medical assistance in dying and legalization of cannabis, and said he needed her "tremendous skill in navigating very complex files" at Veterans Affairs.
The shuffle was precipitated by veteran Liberal Scott Brison's surprise decision to retire from politics which left Trudeau's cabinet without a representative from Nova Scotia and without a president of the Treasury Board. The latter is a key economic post that oversees how the government is managed, how it spends money and how it goes about regulating many aspects of Canadians’ lives.
Jane Philpott, who has emerged as something of a fixer dispatched to put out political fires, was moved to Treasury Board while long-time Trudeau friend Seamus O'Regan took her place at Indigenous Services.
Bernadette Jordan, a backbencher from rural Nova Scotia, was tapped to take Brison's role as her province's cabinet representative. But rather than move her into O'Regan's previous slot at Veterans Affairs, Trudeau created a whole new post for her: rural economic development.
The new role is an apparent bid to shore up Liberal support in rural areas, where the Conservatives tend to dominate. Trudeau also made a little history, with Jordan becoming the first female Nova Scotia MP to be named to a federal cabinet. Jordan is tasked with creating a rural-development strategy, including bringing high-speed internet to rural communities and help in rural infrastructure development.
Trudeau's decision to move Wilson-Raybould resulted in the addition of Montreal MP David Lametti, a former law professor, to cabinet as the new justice minister.
Heralded as Canada's first Indigenous justice minister, Wilson-Raybould has been, in many ways, the face of Trudeau's commitment to make reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples his top priority. Moving her to Veterans Affairs looks like a big step down.
Asked after her swearing-in ceremony if she was disappointed with the demotion, a subdued Wilson-Raybould said no. After a lengthy pause, she added: "I would say that I can think of no world in which I would consider working for our veterans in Canada as a demotion."
But Veterans Affairs has long been treated as a junior post by both Liberal and Conservative governments. Perhaps because of that, ministers have regularly gotten into trouble, accused of insensitivity to or betrayal of Canada's military vets. O'Regan had his own share of difficulties in the job, including coming under fire for likening the depression he felt upon leaving a high-profile career in journalism to the post-traumatic stress faced by some veterans.
For some Liberals, who've grumbled about Wilson-Raybould's performance in Justice, the move was long overdue. They have privately complained that she is difficult to get along with and a poor communicator who has taken what some consider a conservative, restrictive approach to respecting charter rights in a number of bills, including those dealing with assisted dying, impaired driving and genetic discrimination.
"I can't imagine where you've been hearing that," Wilson-Raybould said when asked about the grumblings. She said she's "incredibly proud" of the work she did in Justice.
In her website post, she acknowledged she's received "many questions and inquires" about why she was shuffled out of Justice, a job she called "one of the greatest privileges" of her life. She suggested she's accomplished everything in that post that Trudeau had asked of her.
But Wilson-Raybould also took what could be a veiled shot at Trudeau's vaunted Indigenous reconciliation agenda, saying that "while our government has taken some very important steps, and hard work is being done, the necessary shifts have not yet been fully achieved."
She vowed to continue being "directly engaged in advocating for and advancing the fundamental shifts in relations with Indigenous peoples that are required and will continue to work with my colleagues and to ensure my voice is heard."
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May tweeted that she was "absolutely baffled" by Trudeau's decision to move Wilson-Raybould. Combined with Philpott's move, May questioned whether the shuffle is "a sign Trudeau is demoting Indigenous issues."
On Twitter, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said Philpott and Lametti "are solid performers and well regarded," but called the remainder of Trudeau's move "quite a head-scratcher." He predicted Indigenous Peoples and veterans "will be concerned."
With all other senior ministers staying put, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said Monday's moves amounted to shuffling "the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press