OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended a surprise move Monday to shuffle senior cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould into veterans affairs, calling the B.C. MP a sharp navigator of difficult files.
Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Hall after the swearing-in ceremony for five new ministers, Trudeau was asked if Wilson-Raybould's performance merited the apparent demotion. She had served as Canada's justice minster and attorney general since 2015.
"I would 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 said.
Trudeau pointed to Wilson-Raybould's work on medical assistance in dying and reforms to the criminal justice system as proof that she's "extraordinarily capable" of delivering results on her new portfolio.
Watch: PM says Wilson-Raybould to bring 'deft' touch to veterans affairs
Finance, foreign affairs, defence, and justice are the four federal portfolios traditionally regarded as ones with the highest profile.
Wilson-Raybould was sworn in as attorney general and justice minister in 2015 alongside Bill Morneau as finance minister and Harjit Sajjan as defence minister. Morneau and Sajjan have held on to their original portfolios. Chrystia Freeland became foreign affairs minister in a 2017 cabinet shuffle, leaving behind a post at international trade.
The winter cabinet shuffle was triggered by veteran MP Scott Brison's resignation as president of the Treasury Board and minister of digital government last week. Brison said he wants to spend more time with his family and will not seek re-election in 2019.
To fill Brison's cabinet role, Trudeau has tapped a minister who has become adaptive to taking on difficult portfolios. Jane Philpott will replace Brison as Treasury Board president and digital government minister, leaving her role as Indigenous services minister.
Seamus O'Regan is now Indigenous services minister, moved from the veterans affairs file which Wilson-Raybould now holds.
Former McGill law professor David Lametti assumes the role of attorney general and justice minister. And Bernadette Jordan will represent Nova Scotia at the cabinet table in a new portfolio: rural economic development.
New veterans affairs minister says she's not disappointed by shuffle
During the swearing-in ceremony, Wilson-Raybould gave a passive reaction to the prime minister's embrace which prompted reporters to ask if she was crestfallen about her role change just nine months out before the next election.
"No," she responded outside Rideau Hall. "I am incredibly proud of the work that I did, supported by an amazing minister's staff and by dedicated and hard-working public servants. We accomplished essentially my mandate letter plus."
Her shuffle earned some mixed reactions.
In a lengthy statement, the now-former justice minister made an effort to address the "dire social and economic realities that Indigenous peoples continue to face" across the country.
"Long overdue legislative and policy changes based on the recognition of title and rights, including historic treaties, are urgently needed, so that Indigenous peoples can accelerate and lead the work of re-building their Nations and governments, and a new climate of co-operative relations can emerge," the statement reads.
Though she explicitly acknowledged that she understands the interest in her job change, she said she would not comment on the matter.
The statement goes on to explain how the B.C. MP has "publicly expressed" her opinion about the ongoing challenge "in transforming what the prime minister has stated is the 'most important' relationship" between the government and Indigenous peoples.
"One of my main motivations for seeking public office was to see the work of reconciliation accelerate and advance in real and tangible ways," she added.
Wilson-Raybould, a former B.C. crown prosecutor, is a member of the We Wai Kai nation and was the first Indigenous person to serve as attorney general and justice minister.
She told reporters she's proud to have introduced 13 pieces of legislation and to have appointed "more judges than any justice minister in the past two decades."
One of my main motivations for seeking public office was to see the work of reconciliation accelerate and advance in real and tangible ways.Veteran Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould
She said her former department oversaw the creation of 75 new judicial positions as well as the appointment of 250 judges to superior courts.
"We've been very successful in advancing justice in this country," she said, adding she is looking forward to extending her hard-work ethic to her new role.
"Our veterans served our country, created the freedoms and the rights that we have. And they deserve significant and strong representation and that's what I'm committed to doing," she said.
With an election scheduled in the fall, Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Polilieve likened timing of the five-person shuffle to playing musical chairs aboard the Titanic.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Polilieve mostly focused on chastising O'Regan's record in veteran affairs.
The former broadcaster earned some flack late last year for comparing his decision to leave his journalism career to struggles faced by veterans. O'Regan is a poor pick to "inflict" on Indigenous peoples, and the shuffle will have ramifications for the prime minister, Polilieve said.
"He desperately needed to move a new minister into that portfolio as quickly as possible. And in the process, he's created some instability in the office of the justice minister and attorney general."