There was never really a question as to whether Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett would suffer any consequences for sending a cruel and stupid text to independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould. Yes, it was callous (and somewhat illogical) for Ms. Bennett to imply that her former fellow caucus member – who resigned from cabinet in 2019 on a point of principle, thus forfeiting her cabinet status and salary – was merely interested in saving her pension when she implored the Prime Minister to put off calling an election and focus instead on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. And it certainly doesn’t help the Crown-Indigenous relationship when the minister on the file taunts an Indigenous MP over her response to the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near a former Saskatchewan residential school. Both the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs called for Ms. Bennett’s resignation.
But observers of this government for the past six or so years would note that the chief sin its cabinet ministers can commit is not losing the trust and support of those whose interests they are supposed to represent – or failing to act on promised initiatives or mishandling important files – but acting in a manner that can be perceived as disloyal. Ms. Bennett, faithful to the Liberals for several decades, certainly is not. And so Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave her less a slap on the wrist than a gentle caress, acknowledging that what she did was wrong but saying he knows what is in her “heart.”
Were an election not likely imminent, and if Mr. Trudeau had cabinet members to spare, perhaps Ms. Bennett would’ve faced more than a finger wag for turning concern for dead children into a gross personal dig. But that is not really the pattern for dealing with cabinet ministers who have fallen down on their files. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair outright ignored pleas from families of victims of the Nova Scotia massacre for a public inquiry to probe, among other things, how the perpetrator was able to evade police for more than 12 hours. Mr. Blair, a former Toronto chief of police, announced a closed-door “review” instead. Only after massive public outcry did the minister relent and agree to an inquest. This minister also ignored requests for data from a panel assembled to assess the implementation of structured intervention units, which were introduced to replace solitary confinement units that had been deemed unconstitutional, until the panel’s chair went public and said it would have to disband because it had no usable data. The panel, once provided with some of the requested information, concluded that Canada’s persistent use of solitary confinement amounts to torture. Mr. Blair remains the Minister of Public Safety.
Then there’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, whose credibility in military circles arguably began to erode in 2017, when he falsely told security experts that he was the “architect” of Operation Medusa in Afghanistan. But for women in the military especially, his failure to carry out his expressed task of tackling the toxic, sexualized culture in the Canadian Armed Forces has become glaring. Mr. Sajjan told the defence committee in March that he chose not to review a misconduct allegation against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance when it was brought to him by the then-military ombudsman. And he did not follow up after he punted the issue to the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. His ministry failed to implement many of the chief recommendations from a report into sexual misconduct in the military produced by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2015. In response to the latest calls for immediate action, Mr. Sajjan has commissioned another external review, from another retired Supreme Court justice. Despite this abdication of responsibility, despite a scathing indictment of his record from the military ombudsman and despite his crumbling credibility among those he is tasked to represent, Mr. Sajjan remains Minister of Defence.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the government’s health minister recently walked the plank for kissing an aide in contravention of the country’s COVID-19 guidelines. Under the previous Canadian prime minister, a cabinet minister’s lavish spending – which included taxpayers being charged for a $16 orange juice – cost her the job.
Perhaps the question of where such failures and indiscretions – ignoring the pleas of family members of massacre victims to instead stand with brothers in blue, failing to see to an independent reporting centre for military sexual misconduct despite years on the job, torpedoing your credibility on reconciliation by making a gratuitous swipe at a colleague over her concern for dead children – fall on the spectrum of political offences in relation to indulging in an overpriced orange juice is a matter of perspective. We know from this government that they are certainly more forgivable than betraying the party line on matters of principle, as Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, another former Liberal minister, know too well. What remains indisputable is that there is an extraordinarily high bar for ministerial missteps – just so long as the minister stays faithful to the party. Whether he or she is faithful to constituents is less a matter of concern.
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