Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan strolled onto the podium in Winnipeg's Ndinawe youth centre early Thursday with a huge smile on his face. And for good reason.
The small audience — all gathered to hear him recite a medley of greatest hits from the recently tabled federal Liberal budget — was smiling just as broadly.
Among them were Winnipeg Liberal MPs Kevin Lamoureux (in whose ward the Ndinawe is located), Dan Vandal and Robert-Falcon Ouellette. (You would expect those three to offer more than a modicum of positive energy, but they were far from the only enthusiastic supporters in the room.)
Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations was also there, along with AFN regional chief Kevin Hart. They were joined by a gaggle of smiling workers from many of the Indigenous social service organizations that are Ndinawe's neighbours in the North End.
In short, the love-in was on.
O'Regan went through a shopping list of investments and programs the Liberal government began in 2016 when it tabled its first budget, and continued through to the most recent financial plan. Highlights included hundreds of millions of dollars spent to ensure Jordan's Principle — the federal legal commitment to provide a similar level of government service to all Indigenous children, regardless of location — along with investments in clean water, affordable housing, health services and land claims.
It was an important message delivered at a critical moment in the evolution of the federal Liberal government.
It is still reeling from the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. scandal that ripped the federal Grit caucus apart and led to the expulsion of former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. The departure of Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous activist and lawyer before entering politics, in particular was cited by many Indigenous leaders as evidence the Liberals are not truly committed to reconciliation.
O'Regan's visit to Winnipeg is part of a thinly-veiled, coast-to-coast reminder that, when it comes to support for Indigenous people, the Liberals are putting their money where their mouths are.
He didn't come right out and warn Indigenous people to reject the Liberals at their own peril, and yet, it wasn't hard to read between the lines of his brief remarks: of the parties with a fighting chance of forming government, the Liberals are the best bet for Indigenous people.
In fact, O'Regan said, during his national tour to meet Indigenous leaders to discuss budget measures, he has found the Wilson-Raybould affair is no longer top-of-mind.
"Here's the thing," he said Thursday. "I haven't been asked (about Wilson-Raybould or SNC-Lavalin) at all. Not at all... I think there's an acknowledgement by many that I meet that our government's commitment goes way beyond one minister, it's well beyond me, it's well beyond — the prime minister would probably say — even himself."
O'Regan was not alone. Bellegarde, who has been a close ally to the Trudeau government for some time now, said in large part, the Liberals' commitment to reconciliation and improving the lives of Indigenous people can be judged on its own merit.
In an interview following O'Regan's public remarks, Bellegarde said notwithstanding the Wilson-Raybould affair, there is no doubt the current Liberal government is making progress in improving the lives of First Nation and Indigenous people. In making his argument, Bellegarde repeated many of the talking points O'Regan used in his address — proof he is comfortable expressing public support for a government that has been under siege in recent months.
"Look at the track record in the last four fiscal years," Bellegarde said. "A total of $21.4 billion for reconciliation. Is it enough? No, but it's moving in the right direction. You have to remember that reconciliation is about more than one person."
Bellegarde is passionate and convincing, but even he does not claim to be speaking for all Indigenous people. Many high-profile regional leaders, including some who serve on the executive of the AFN with the national chief, have lashed out at the Liberals.
Terry Teegee, AFN regional chief from B.C., said the government's decision to expel Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from national caucus revealed a "deeply flawed and dishonest intent" on the part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"The balance that was being forged within our societies through the process of reconciliation is now threatened," Teegee said earlier this month.
For other Indigenous people, the future may have little to do with forgiving the Liberals for their treatment of Wilson-Raybould, and more to do with the fact they are the government in power. As a result, it requires a certain degree of pragmatism.
One administrator from an Indigenous social service agency nodded in agreement when asked if Indigenous people have to hold their noses a bit to curry favour with the government in power, regardless of its performance on other issues.
"It's always been that way," the administrator said. "We need their support to do our work. We can't afford to fight."
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Friday, April 26, 2019 at 8:26 AM CDT: Typo fixed.