02/12/2019 19:50 EST | Updated 02/12/2019 20:50 EST

Trudeau Defends Reconciliation Record After Wilson-Raybould Quits Cabinet

One grand chief called the resignation a "significant step backwards."

Trevor Hagan/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on during a transit infrastructure announcement in Winnipeg on Feb. 12, 2019.

OTTAWA — The prime minister defended his government's record on reconciliation in a warehouse of buses Tuesday after Indigenous leaders accused him of throwing one of his former ministers under one.

Earlier in the day, now-former veterans affairs minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced her resignation from cabinet. She also stepped down from her role as the associate minister of national defence.

"For folks who are puzzled by Ms. Wilson-Raybould's decision to step down, they can add me to the list. Because I was surprised and disappointed," explained Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, taking questions at a Winnipeg infrastructure announcement.

When asked by a reporter how the loss of the only Indigenous voice in cabinet will affect his government's decision making, Trudeau referred to results of the last election.

"Canadians from coast to coast to coast made a clear demand of the government in 2015 when they elected us with a commitment to move forward with reconciliation," he said, saying his government has built new schools and created new health systems for Indigenous peoples.

Watch: Prime minister responds to ex-justice minister's decision to quit cabinet

The resignation comes at the heel of a controversy involving Wilson-Raybould's time as attorney general and her involvement in a fraud and corruption case involving SNC-Lavalin.

Last week, The Globe and Mail published allegations that the Prime Minister's Office pressured the former attorney general into negotiating a remediation agreement to help the Montreal-based engineering and construction firm avoid a criminal conviction.

The prime minister has called the allegations of political interference "false."

SNC-Lavalin faces corruption charges for bribing officials in Libya to secure government contracts. A remediation agreement would mean a financial penalty. A conviction, in comparison, carries a 10-year ban on bidding on federal contracts.

To be honest, I don't entirely understand why Jody Wilson-Raybould made the decision she did.Prime Minsiter Justin Trudeau

Trudeau said at no point did Wilson-Raybould approach him with concerns.

"To be honest, I don't entirely understand why Jody Wilson-Raybould made the decision she did," he said, explaining what happened isn't consistent with conversations they've had in the past month.

Trudeau said it was the former attorney general's responsibility to raise concerns with him in the fall.

"She did not. Nobody did. And that's why I continue to be puzzled and obviously disappointed by her decision to step down from cabinet."

According to the Globe, the federal director of public prosecutions refused to enter negotiations about a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin in October.

Wilson-Raybould hires former Supreme Court justice for advice

In a one-page resignation letter addressed to the prime minister Tuesday, the Liberal MP stated that she sought public office "with the goal of implementing a positive and progressive vision of change on behalf of all Canadians and a different way of doing politics."

Her commitment to these principles remains unchanged, she said in a statement, "This work must and will carry on."

Watch: A brief history of Jody Wilson-Raybould's time in cabinet

Wilson-Raybould also disclosed that she has hired former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell to advise her on what she is "legally permitted" to discuss.

She will remain a Liberal MP representing the British Columbia riding of Vancouver Granville.

Her resignation provides stark contrast to Trudeau's characterization of the situation just a day earlier. He told reporters in Vancouver that he had full confidence in Wilson-Raybould and that her continued presence in cabinet "should actually speak for itself."

Despite the prime minister's words, Wilson-Raybould wasn't among the group of Vancouver-area MPs who joined him at a housing announcement in the city's east end.

'Indigenous people are used as political pawns!': Senator

Wilson-Raybould was appointed Canada's first Indigenous justice minister and attorney general in 2015. She held the post until mid-January when she was shuffled to veterans affairs.

Losing her from cabinet means the government will have to fill the veterans affairs role. The Prime Minister's Office confirmed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will lead the office in the interim.

The nature of her departure complicates the Liberal government's reconciliation agenda in an election year.

Trudeau was elected four years ago with a progressive platform that included a promise to build a new nation-to-nation relationship between the government and Indigenous peoples.

Since becoming prime minister, he has repeatedly stated that "no relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous peoples."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he was "saddened" to learn about the resignation.

"Ms. Wilson-Raybould's appointment as minister of justice and attorney general was celebrated by many First Nations people as a tremendous accomplishment and testament to her expertise, experience and intellect," Bellegarde said in a statement.

He added he remains "concerned about the many unanswered questions" surrounding her resignation.

Darryl Dyck/CP
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde pauses while speaking during the AFN annual general assembly in Vancouver on July 26, 2018.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee offered a more pointed rebuke, equating the government's treatment of Wilson-Raybould to "character assassination."

In a statement, Settee called the resignation a "significant step backwards" for reconciliation. "We continue to hold her in high esteem as she honourably navigates the current political landscape in Ottawa," he said.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau, who is an Algonquin from the Kitigan Zibi reserve near Maniwaki, Que., also weighed in on the day's news. He evoked a throwback to when he lost to Trudeau in a boxing match, and suggested the tables have now turned.

The matter isn't fated to lose any interest any time soon. Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion launched an examination Monday into the allegations of political interference after receiving a complaint from the NDP.

On Wednesday, the House Of Commons justice committee will meet to discuss a separate request to call nine witnesses, including Wilson-Raybould, to testify over the claims of political interference.

Opposition MPs, including Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, have urged the Liberal-dominated committee to support the calls for a study.

Liberal MP and committee chair Anthony Housefather has indicated that he will likely support an investigation.

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